Kurinjippoo revolution and its political implications

Munnar town

A view of Munnar town

The strike by women tea estate workers in Munnar in Kerala for bonus, now nicknamed after neelakurinji flowers, was a resounding success. (The workers did not face any police brutality unlike the Jasmine revolution in Tunisia.) Its political implications are significant and will be watched for long.

Notably, it was the recognised trade unions— rather than the tea company (Kannan Devan Hills Plantation), which had to give in to women power as hundreds of unorganised women labourers from the estates thronged the roads of Munnar virtually paralyzing traffic and economic activities in the town including tourism. Politicians and trade union leaders who spoke against them had to eat their words. This was the result of the unions betraying the workers for long.

Chief Minister Oommen Chandy had to convene urgent meeting with the women’s representatives, keeping away the trade unionists, to settle the strike. The labourers were demanding 20 per cent bonus this year and company was refusing to pay that saying that its profits had come down. However, company is a captive unit of Tata Global Beverages and profits depended on at what prices tea was being sold to the Tata group company.

The argument of the trade unions that the women made a mistake in agreeing to a reduced the bonus component of 8.33 per cent and the balance as ex-gratia has no much merit. They say that next year they would be able to start the negotiations from 8.33 per cent bonus component against 10 per cent promised by the company this year. But, next year’s outcome will depend on what force the women are able to muster next year. However, an immediate concern to them will be forthcoming negotiations on daily wages which is one of the lowest among agricultural labourers in Kerala. The workers are demanding daily wages of Rs. 500 which is about double the current wages. Minimum wages of women agriculture labourers in Kuttanad is Rs. 330 a day while that of men is Rs. 560 a day.

The estates workers may be on the way for substantial gains in this respect as Labour Minister Shibhu Baby John had to swallow his remarks that such a wage level was not feasible in tea plantations. The women labourers are now trying to form a union of their own. They may succeed given their will power. But there is no guarantee that the new union too will not go the way of existing unions which had sacrificed workers’ interests for personal gains of their leaders. May be it is better for the women to remain ‘unorganised’.

However, a crucial development to watch will be whether some of these women will emerge as contestants in the forthcoming panchayat elections. If they do, it could cause considerable worries to the political parties and unions, and rewrite history. Emergence of an alternative to the unions in Munnar like the Aam Aadmi Party in Delhi could not be ruled out. If that happens, the established political parties will be the losers.

Related:
New York Times: Hopes, and Homes, Crumbling on Indian Tea Plantations

Silver Jubilee of Save Kurinji Campaign

kurinji 2014 bloom-in-meadow

Kurinji in bloom on hill slopes near Munnar in 2014

Tholkapiar sang centuries ago about neelakurinji plants that blossoms like a carpet over the mountain peaks once in 12 years. Today, that plant is part of a threatened ecosystem—the shola grasslands.

In September 1989, a group of nearly 40 men and women set out from Kodaikanal on foot to have a look at the plant and campaign against its destruction. They included members of the Palani Hills Conservation Council, Kodaikanal; Asambu Greens, Trivandrum; and a host of nature lovers and activists. The march led to the formation of the Save Kurinji Campaign Council soon after. This year marks the 25th anniversary of the march. The participants of the march will be gathering again in Kodaikanal on October 2 to commemorate the jubilee. There will also be a meeting in Munnar on October 4.

About Neelakurinji

Neelakurinji (Strobilanthes kunthiana) is a shrub that used to grow abundantly in the shola grasslands of Western Ghats in India. It flowers gregariously once in 12 years. However, on different locations, the flowering may take place in different years. Thus, kurinji has flowered in some areas of Munnar and Kodaikanal from July this year. However, it will flower in places like Rajamalai and other parts of Eravikulam National Park only in 2018. (The last flowering there was in 2006).

Once, kurinji used to cover the entire Nilgiris like a carpet during its flowering season. However, now plantations and dwellings occupy much of their habitat. Destruction of shola forests have also reduced its presence in Munnar and neighbouring areas.

Save Kurinji Campaign

The campaign had actually started in the eighties after K. V. Surendranath (then  Member of Kerala Assembly), Dr. Velayudhan Nair, Suresh Elamon, G. Rajkumar and P. K. Uthaman had a rare glimpse of gregarious flowering of kurinji in shola grasslands between Kodaikanal and Munnar, most of which were soon after converted into pine plantations. The campaign was also prompted by destruction of the habitat by fire and encroachments.

After the 1989 march, the campaign continued through the past 25 years. Several marches, exhibitions, talks and programmes were organised. One of the prominent marches was one that was held in 1990 when kurinji was in full bloom at the same locations as they are now. There was also a major march in 2006 and programmes in connection with the formation of Kurinjimala Sanctuary.

The campaign had contributed significantly in crystallising the idea of a sanctuary to protect the kurinji habitat and release of a commemorative stamp on kurinji in 2006. The blooming of neelakurinji and the need to protect its habitat got media attention thanks to the campaign. During 1990 and 2006, thousands of people flocked to Munnar to see the kurinji bloom and a kurinji fest was organised by the Government at Munnar in 2006.

Kurinjimala Sanctuary:

The Kerala Government notified part of the habitat of kurinji (shola forests) as the Kurinjimala Sanctuary in 2006. It comprises of 32 square kilometres in the Kottakamboor and Vattavada villages in Idukki district of Kerala. The declaration of the sanctuary was made by then Minister for Forests Benoy Viswam at the Neelakurinji Fest at Munnar on October 7, 2006.

The sanctuary is contiguous to the Chinnar Wildlife Sanctuary and Anamudi and Pampadum Shola National Parks.

The Government notification said that the sanctuary would ensure the long-term protection of the entire biodiversity of the area, especially Strobilanthes kunthiana and its habitat. Private land holdings having titles in the villages are excluded from the sanctuary area.

Related:

You may also want to read my original report http://kurinji.in/march.html on which this post is partly based.