The morning started quietly – I was the sole guest in the dimly lit High Range Club dining room. The rain was lashing down outside and mist wreathed the tops of the nearby hilltops. The Club lent me a rainbow coloured umbrella and I decided to walk the mile or so into Munnar over one of its many bridges. A crowd of ladies in colourful saris was streaming across it, shouting jokes back and forth, laughter rippling from the front to the back of the procession. I wondered where they were off to on this Monday morning; clearly not to work in the tea plantations.
My plan was to catch up with my emails in an internet café over a coffee and then meet up with the HR manager of the worker-owned Kanan Devan Hill Production Company Pvt Ltd, which also operated a ‘participatory management’ system which involved workers at every level of the estates. He said he was a bit busy this morning. Last year he’d told me about the “happiness survey” of KDHP which had revealed that the majority of workers rated their employment and lives here as ‘good’ or ‘satisfactory’. This time I hoped he would help me to meet some workers to hear about Munnar’s ground-breaking system from their point of view.
I was surprised to see the KDHP sales outlet on the ground floor of the Head Quarters Office building was closed. Policemen were gathered outside the HQ Office door. A little further on, a crowd of people stood waving black flags on thin bamboo poles. I heard slogans being chanted from another direction, and another crowd of protesters marched in. Over the next hour or so more and more of them poured in from every direction, mostly women, shouting slogans, punching the air, waving their black flags and cardboard placards. I could see why the HR manager might be a tad busy this morning. A man singled me out with my rainbow coloured umbrella and, in the midst of the yelling protesters and ranks of police, asked if I would be interested in an ayurvedic massage. You have to admire the entrepreneurial spirit.
I asked a lady beside me what was going on. With my barely existent Tamil I couldn’t understand much of her answer except the bit about the fact that they were protesting against their low pay and bonuses. I took a photo of someone ripping strips off a large poster of a grinning politician, but I was immediately surrounded by young men saying no photos, unless I wanted to go up to the front with the media. But they did want to tell me about the strike and for me to “Whatsapp” their message to London as they put it. They said workers worked 7-8 hours a day, their work is very hard, they face “elephant, tiger, blood sucking leeches” and only get paid Rs230 (about £2). “Don’t they get money from shares in the company?” I asked. They shrugged. The language barrier was too great to get to the bottom of how workers in a worker-owned company with participatory management could be striking in the first place.
I found a prime position under an awning on the steps of a hotel – along with several policemen and a few other civilian gawkers like me. The street was by now carpeted with tea leaves and crowds of men were beckoning cars, minibuses and auto-rickshaws on towards them, laughing as if challenging them to a game, and then showering them with armfuls of the leaves, stuffing them in through the windows. The drivers and passengers were laughing too (a little more nervously). The unmistakable bouquet of tea that normally wafts up from a pot or freshly roasted from a factory now rose from fresh leaves crushed under tyres, sandals and boots. It was almost a carnival atmosphere – but I couldn’t help thinking that any minute it could all turn nasty. And indeed at one point I did see some men roughly shoving an elderly man in a white dhoti – though luckily nothing more seemed to come of it. Later, another shout went up and a small but vociferous group of BJP supporters carrying orange lotus symbol flags, all dressed in white marched off – strangely in the opposite direction to the main protest.
Suddenly the hotel manager I was chatting with rushed inside and started to close the metal shutters of the hotel – in a flash the policemen all dived inside too. I looked around and realised I was now completely alone on the steps… and although I couldn’t sense any immediate danger from the crowd, I succumbed to the natural human instinct, when all around are losing their heads, to panic. There was still a small gap under the metal shutters – I thought about throwing myself on the ground and rolling in at the last moment like they do in the movies, but opted instead to squat down and shout pathetically through the gap, “Can I come in too, please?” It was opened again enough for me to crawl in.
Inside the hotel lobby, there was a back window with a good view of the bridge behind the Office – now a flood of protesters’ black umbrellas – and glimpses of other parts of the town that twisted around itself with the river. The policemen were laughing at something happening on the bridge – so clearly they had not rushed in to avoid violence and anarchy. They soon trooped out again but the civilians stayed, pointing out where trouble spots were flaring (in the direction that the BJP group had gone) and debating what was going on. One of them repeated to me the explanation about the workers getting only Rs230 a day and working hard under dangerous circumstances. Again I asked about the shares. Again my informant didn’t seem to know much about it. He said that the trouble that was flaring up in the otherwise peaceful protest was because the workers were not happy about the political interference in the strike. He also said that the strike was not organised by any trade union but by workers themselves. In fact, he said that the unions who themselves were affiliated to different political parties- Communist, Congress, BJP etc – were part of the problem, skimming a percentage off the workers’ negotiated salary. The papers today say workers attacked the union offices with stones for “failing to protect the interests of the workers”.
I was getting hungry, but this time virtually every shop, restaurant and hotel’s metal shutter was firmly down. As I queued at the counter of one of the few little shops still open for something to eat, groups of women marched down the street shouting sternly at the shopkeepers to close them too. The atmosphere was starting to feel less carnival-like and I was feeling increasingly conspicuous and vulnerable with my rainbow coloured umbrella.
In the compound of the slightly safer feeling Munnar Post Office raised above street level, I got talking to a man who was equally sympathetic with the workers and also equally mystified by whether or not they get income from their shares. “And it’s the first time the ladies are being activists!” he said, widening his eyes and waggling his head in admiration at their pluck.
Like the others I had spoken to, he said he’d never known a strike like this to be called in Munnar before. But I had. It was in 1968 when I was seven. Then, too, workers had surrounded the Head Quarters Office to demand higher bonuses, only that time my Dad was inside it. And when he and the General Manager tried to leave, the protesters surrounded the car and threw stones at them, the smashed glass of the windows cutting their faces and arms. It could have ended with worse bloodshed than that, but a solitary policeman appeared in the midst of the crowd, bravely swinging his baton. The crowd hesitated long enough for the car to escape.
While I was planning my own “escape” from the increasing intensity building up on the streets, my new friend at the Post Office, who was an hotelier and real estate agent, took the opportunity to try to sell me some land, explaining that good money could be made by building a guest house here. Again, you have to admire the entrepreneurial spirit.
I have no idea how to end this post. I have no wise summing up statements to make that neatly tie up this story because I don’t know what to think or who to believe… where I thought there was hope, there is strife; where I thought I saw clarity there is confusion… I’m still hoping that I will somehow get to the bottom of it, and that when I get there, there will still be a glimmer of hope.
The views in this blog are the personal views of Sabita Banerji and do not reflect the views or policies of the Ethical Trading Initiative.