Munnar: It has been more than 15 days since Saritha’s house was damaged by floods. And exactly 15 days since she stepped out for work in the tea plantation. “That’s half of my monthly salary gone,” she said.
As Munnar was hit by floods and landslides, plantation workers in this picturesque town have been at the receiving end of the disaster. It was on August 14 that water started rising and by 15 afternoon, most of the houses were completely flooded. No lives were lost as the workers had moved either to their relatives’ homes or to relief camps just as the water started rising. But for many like Saritha, the floods wrecked their monthly income and they are now left to fend for themselves.
Saritha has been working on the plantation owned by the Tata group for the last 20 years. Her house was completely inundated and filled with at least four feet deep mud . She claims she was denied any leaves by her employer to fix her house and her daily wage of Rs 325 was cut too for all the days she didn’t go to work.
“I earn just about enough to make ends meet. And now because of the incessant rains and eventual flooding, I could not go to work. The employers know how bad the situation was and they have still decided to deduct the pay,” she added. The floods destroyed her kitchen garden and parts of her house, yet her employer has not bothered to give her any relief, she further said.
Saritha had moved to the relief camp for two days after August 14 and then moved to her father’s house. Since then, she has gone to work for four days.
“If I don’t show my face once in a while, I will be suspended. So, I’ll be paid for the four days I went to work,” she told News18.
Asked if she had approached her employer regarding the condition of her house, she said that she did only to receive a “we will come soon to help you” as a response. “They haven’t come yet. I’m doing the cleaning and everything else and also losing out on my pay and also on my savings since I’m spending it all on fixing my house,” she said.
Saritha lives in a house that is owned by the company that she works for. There are about 10-12 houses in the same area, thus leading to the line of houses often referred to as “line” in Munnar and all houses in a line need not necessarily be owned by one single company.
Activist Karim, who has been working on plantation workers’ issues and rights for years, was one of the first people to reach Saritha’s ‘line’.
“Those who come for relief and help say that these houses are owned by the company so they won’t do anything. The company doesn’t help these workers. They have a miserable life,” Karim told News18. It was only four days ago that help came, according to Karim, which included bedsheets, rice and some other aid that the police officials there themselves collected.
In the same line, the land on which Tara’s kitchen is built is still moving and falling into the water. “The company is not helping at all. The land is still moving and breaking apart. If they continue to deduct money daily, how will we survive?” she said. Her brother works at the plantation. She further claimed that during their time at the relief camp, the officials at the company asked the volunteers to not help the plantation workers.
“They told the volunteers they would help them and threw away the food that we were given. We fought for it only then did we get food,” she further said. The company officials, however, did come to the house to see if there were issues with the electrical connections.
Those who live on the tea estate narrated their ordeal too. “Our houses were destroyed by landslides and the rains. We went to the company officials for help, they said they will have to wait for the insurance company to send their people to click pictures and then only can they move to fix it. Would they wait for the insurance company to click pictures if there was a body under the rubble? When we asked them this, the tea company officials had no response,” said Mohan, a plantation worker who stays on the estate.
During the time of the disaster, the company just told him and those around him to move to a safe place. “They told us they can’t help us and that we should just move to any place that we find safe,” he added.
(Names have been changed to protect identities.)