G Gomathi can pass for any woman labourer in the high ranges of Kerala. Only those who know her closely can comprehend the woman's mettle and the heft of the organisation that she founded, the Pombilai Orumai.
"You look familiar," says the manager of a cardamom plantation in Pooppara in Kerala's Idukki district when he meets Gomathi, as she walks in. She shrugs off with a smile, without giving any hint that she was one of the firebrand leaders of the 2015 Munnar agitation that shook the plantation sector in Kerala.
A mighty force, once
The rise and fall of Pombilai Orumai in the tea plantations of Kerala is also the tale of a collective and treacherous effort to suppress a movement led by a group of socially and economically marginalized women. More than five years after the historic agitation, the organisation, which had the potential to grow into a major political party, has faded into relative oblivion. It is now, at best, a labour union.
Mainstream political parties and trade unions cashed in on the financial insecurity of labourers to reclaim its control over the rebellious group, which raised their voice for the first time for a hike in bonus from 10 to 20 per cent in 2015.
The women plantation workers, united under the women's collective, began marching in small groups on September 5, 2015 to the headquarters of Kanan Devan Hills Plantations Limited (KDHP) in Munnar, disobeying their own trade unions and demanding increase in their wages and bonus payments. This turned into an unprecedented resistance movement in Kerala with thousands of Dalit women breaking away from their trade unions and taking part in the struggle.
The struggle had caught the attention of people across Kerala when the women workers gheraoed the KDHP managing director and later stopped the local CPM MLA from meeting the striking workers. The group also did not seek the support of any political party. In fact, it refused to talk to political leaders. The only leader who was allowed to enter the protest venue was veteran CPM man and then Opposition leader V S Achuthanandan, who spent hours talking to the protesting women at the venue, drawing all the media in the state to the spot. After winning the hearts of Malayalis with the agitation, what happened to Pombilai Orumai within five years is an interesting subject for any student of politics.
Fresh from the first Munnar agitation, the Pombilai Orumai had raised expectations by winning two grama panchayat seats and a block panchayat ward in the 2015 local body elections. However, this time (2020 local body polls), the collective had become insignificant.
"All major trade unions here run cooperative societies where they provide loans to its members. Labourers manage their annual expenses using this money. Our union is unable to provide any such financial support and many labourers rejoined other unions like AITUC, INTUC, and CITU. Still, we have around 2,000 members," said Lissy Sunny, president, Pombilai Orumai.
Gomathi, who won the Nallathani ward of Devikulam block panchayat in 2015, was the most recognisable face of Pombilai Orumai. She is not with the union any more. She works as a daily-wage labourer in a cardamom plantation in Pooppara and is active with various campaigns and agitations, including the one seeking rehabilitation of Pettimudi landslip victims.
'Defection' to CPM
The ‘defection' of Gomathi to the CPM after the polls created a rift in the organization. However, Gomathi says the decision was the result of constant sidelining. "No one from Pombilai Orumai campaigned for me during the local body election. Still, I won. It was difficult to continue as an independent without any support from Pombilai Orumai. CPM's S Rajendran, Devikulam MLA, had made promises like membership in the plantation labour committee, land for the labourers, and intervention for a pay hike. However, I was sidelined by the party stating that the company was not favouring me as I caused a loss of Rs 50 crore due to the agitation," she said.
After quitting the CPM in 2017, Gomathi contested the Lok Sabha election in 2019, where she could garner only 1,985 votes. Gomathi said she constantly faced threats and harassment, which intensified after the women demanded an apology from Kerala's power minister M M Mani who allegedly made ‘sexist and derogatory remarks' against Pombilai Orumai members.
Gomathi alleged that the police continued to torture her with cases and recurrent threats. She had to move out of her rented house in Munnar to her father's property in Pooppara in 2018. "It is well known that many people don't have title deeds of their land in Munnar. However, due to my agitation, the police made frequent visits to our house, demanding documents to prove the ownership of the land. I shifted as I didn't want to trouble the house-owner any more," she said.
Other side of tale
The 20-day strike against the ‘abusive remarks' of the minister or decision of Gomathi to contest Lok Sabha election on the Pombilai Orumai label did not go well with the faction led by Lissy. "We were outraged by the remarks of the minister. However, there was no point in holding a strike to demand an apology or resignation. As expected, it turned out to be a failure and dented the image of Pombilai Orumai. We were also opposed to Gomathi using the Pombilai Orumai label to contest the election. We had three representatives in the 2015 local body elections. However, Gomathi joined the CPM and others, the Congress, making our organization irrelevant," Lissy said.
AAP, Congress role
The intervention by Aam Admi Party (AAP), led by C R Neelakantan, and the Congress, by Lathika Subhash, in the activities of Pombilai Orumai, also created a rift among the members.
Writer and social activist K Santhosh Kumar said the Pombilai Orumai strike in 2015 exposed the existence of a state within the state in the plantation sector. "The plantation sector and the inhuman condition of the labourers were not a concern of the mainstream media before Pombilai Orumai. Even the media coverage into the recent Pettimudi landslide is part of the changes brought about by this agitation," said Santhosh Kumar who was associated with the Pombilai Orumai.
"Unlike other labour agitations which demand a hike in pay, the Pombilai Orumai struggle sought a hike in bonus. These labourers were working on a meagre daily wage of around Rs 201 at that time. With no land or property of their own, they were unable to take loans. So, this bonus was their only solace. The agitation exposed the glaring issues in the Plantations Labour Act, which was just a rehash of the colonial-era laws concerning bonded labourers. There was a pay hike after the agitation but the labourers in tea plantations are still paid much less than the average pay of migrant labourers in Kerala," Santhosh Kumar said.
'Maoism and LTTE'
"Most of the plantation labourers are Dalits who migrated from Tamil Nadu years ago. The mainstream Kerala society sees them as Tamilians but they don't have any roots in Tamil Nadu. Lissy is the only Malayali in the group, who was called in to communicate with the media and politicians in Malayalam," he said.
Santhosh said the society alienated them as people were quick to attribute LTTE and Maoist links to the agitators. "By pressurizing male members of the family, denying loans from cooperative societies and threatening them with police cases, the other trade unions managed to pull out women labourers from Pombilai Orumai," Santhosh Kumar said.
Santhosh said he witnessed how jeep drivers were forced to pull off in the last minute from the campaign of Gomathi during the 2019 election.
In spite of having gone through hell, the women of Pombilai Orumai have no regrets. "In fact, we are proud. This agitation made all of us stand tall, speak face-to-face with the police, bureaucrats, and politicians, and travel freely at night and fear none. I regularly intervene in the issues of the 2,000 union members," said Lissy.
She added that their demand for land is getting materialising with the LDF government providing five cents of land to around 2,300 families and financial assistance of Rs 4.5 lakh for construction of houses.
"Currently, the daily pay is Rs 400 and bonus is still 10-12 per cent," she said.
On BJP prospects
Gomathi had closely associated with several Dalit organisations after leaving the CPM. However, she feels that such activities are centred around individuals. She did not rule out an association with the BJP in future. "Yes, several parties, including the BJP, have approached me. I am skeptical because of the way I was cheated by the CPM. However, I want to join some organization to continue my social work," she said.
(Jisha Surya is an independent journalist based in Thiruvananthapuram.)