The stillness of Akathethara is occasionally shattered by one of three things. Dynamite at the quarries, the rattle of tractors carrying boulders and Mr Paulose’s sneezes. For nearly a year, however, Mr Paulose has ruled the sound waves. The big quarry has shut down and the tractors do not ply.
For us, the silence at the quarry has calmed our fears of seeing one hill after another gouged out from the landscape. For Malarkodi and her husband Rajan, and about 100 other families in our neighbourhood, it has brought privation.
Malarkodi says that when the quarry was operating, each unionized loader made between Rs300 and Rs400 a day, loading trucks with boulders and breaking up larger boulders to feed the crushers. A year ago, the quarry changed hands and the new owner bought a crusher that could process large boulders. His plan was to sell only crushed granite and employ only the four women crusher operators, paying them Rs60 a load. The unionized loaders asked that the loads be shared between themselves and the women workers, but the Rs90 per load the owner offered, instead of the earlier Rs140, was not a living wage.
Negotiations broke down and the owner closed the quarry, sending home the 32 unionized loaders, dynamite blasters, stone carriers, crusher operators, foremen and drivers. He now buys boulders from another quarry 10km away to feed his crusher, for which he has hired new workers. For what he pays for the granite plus transportation, says Rajan, “he could have paid us what we asked for”.
The militant loaders’ unions in this state are often cited, with the hartals, as one major reason “Kerala will never improve” but court judgements have mitigated their more rapacious practices in the past five years. When we built our house, the loaders collected their fees strictly according to a booklet we had picked up from the Labour Office in Palakkad town, which listed the official loading rate of every conceivable item, from 16 paise for a roof tile to Rs26 for a colour TV. Most of those loaders lived just north of us, beyond the paddy field, so I continued to meet them after I moved in.
A group of them came by one evening, headed by a retired schoolmaster for respectability, and courteously collected Rs10 from me to support their samaram. The next day I found out that samaram meant strike. I was puzzled that a strike designed to inconvenience the public should be funded by that public, but then many things puzzled me about the loaders.
They always turned up when one needed a heavy armoire moved, and they always handled it tenderly. When a stray dog got his head stuck in someone’s aluminium water pot, the loaders formed the requisite tug of war, since there was no question of sacrificing the pot for the dog or vice versa. Whenever a goat gets stranded on a precipice or a cow slips into a ditch, they are ready with rope and muscle. If the livestock owner is as poor as they are, the loaders expect nothing more than thanks. Otherwise, they hint at a bit of drinking money.
Malarkodi has two boys, aged 11 and 7, and her main concern now, she says, is to make sure they have enough to eat and can stay in school. She and Rajan have always been loaders. They have no other skills. Between the laws controlling the explosives licence, the breaks during the heavy rains, and politics, a loader’s situation is always precarious.
The two work as mason’s helpers sometimes, at Rs200 or more a day. Subtract from that the bus fare to the site and back, the cost of food, and the contractor’s commission, and almost all they have left, she says, is their exhaustion.
Most of the families are struggling. The luckier men now work as masons or drivers when they can. Some dig ditches or prune trees for Rs100-150 a day.
Farm work goes to regular field workers who already know how to sow, harvest and thresh paddy. A few women have found work in the rural employment guarantee scheme. Malarkodi says some loaders are now talking of accepting the Rs90 rate. Other families talk of leaving Akathethara entirely.
This morning there was a fresh line of red flags at the quarry entrance. The former crusher operators had been agitating for the severance pay they were entitled to by contract, one month’s pay for every year of service. Yesterday the owner offered them about half the amount due, and the old workers kept the new workers out. Now the crusher too is silent.
The uncertainty of their future notwithstanding, the loaders celebrated this past Onam with three days of undiminished noise, a drama, cinematic dances and children’s contests, including biscuit biting, picking up toffees and filling water in a bottle. The announcer promised lavish prizes. A popular contest for the men was cycle-slow, in which the prize goes to the man who rides his bicycle as slowly as possible without losing his balance.
(We resume our series on life in Akathethara in Kerala. It will now appear once every month.)
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