The landslide in Idukki's Pettimudi on 7 August, which has left at least 43 people dead, has once again underlined how marginalised communities are worst-affected by natural disasters.
Many of those who died or have been affected by the landslide are Dalit workers at the Kannan Devan Hill Plantation Tea Estate. G Gomati, a local activist, can attest to the destruction wrought on underprivileged communities due to the landslide. Gomati, who is at the forefront of the struggle for the rights of plantation workers, had even contested the 2019 Lok Sabha election from Idukki, albeit unsuccessfully, as an Independent candidate.
Recalling the aftermath of the landslide, Gomati said that the workers themselves, along with villagers from Idamalakkudi, Marayoor and Munnar, were the first responders to the tragedy. Rescue operations by the government came into the picture later.
While the government has promised compensation to the next of kin of those who lost their lives, Gomati maintains that more needs to done. She said, "The government seems to have put a price of Rs 5 lakh to the lives that were lost. But what about the days to come? The rains of August have just begun. Who knows what else is in store for Munnar? Many people have filed complaints seeking to get their houses repaired or built. What will the government do if something happens to them?"
Pettimudi had suffered nature's wrath in 2018 as well, when floods damaged a road and a bridge in the area. However, the plantation workers in the region have little choice but to make do with the housing facilities they get.
Speaking about the living conditions of the workers, Gomati said, "The plantation workers do not own any land, and so they live in accommodation that has been arranged by plantation owners. Most of these residential buildings are old."
Five years earlier, the plantation workers had gone on strike for a host of demands, including better housing. At that time, several media reports also highlighted how workers were living in cramped one-room quarters. Gomati recalled, "Responding to the strike, the company had promised to expand the residential facilities. But that did not happen."
The plantation workers, in their agitation in 2015, had also put forward a host of other demands. These included better education for children, the use of mechanised methods for plucking tea shoots, as well as rights related to land for the workers. These demands were aimed at helping the workers break free of the caste-linked bondage of plantation work.
In the current context, the COVID-19 outbreak has only compounded the woes of plantation workers. About this, Gomati said, "People who have a kitchen and one bedroom are told to maintain social distancing. Five to six people sleep together in a single bed. Where is the distancing? The labourers had to work during the COVID-19 lockdown as well."
A part of this article has been translated from a Malayalam post on the website Keyboard Journal