Kochi: The economic downturn and the following decline in manufacturing and exports has benefited at least one sector: cardamom plantation in Kerala, which no longer has to worry about losing workers to the textile industries of Tirupur, or even small industries in Coimbatore, both in Tamil Nadu.
Thanks to the relative stability of work on the cardamom plantations, Scaria Jose, who owns estates in the hills of Idukki district in Kerala that produce about 90 tonnes of cardamom a year, no longer has to transport people from neighbouring Theni district in Tamil Nadu to pluck the pods.
While wages in places such as Tirupur rose to Rs300 a day, almost twice the Rs136.78 a day paid on the estates, the uncertainty of finding work is holding back workers from going there.
Even as the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS), which guarantees 100 days of work in a year to poor rural households, has drawn away workers from other crops such as coffee, the cardamom estates pay better than the Rs125 mandated by the Union government’s flagship welfare programme.
“I had to engage my staff to collect at least 25 people from the neighbouring towns of Theni or Bodinaykannur in Tamil Nadu spending around Rs1,500 daily...into my estates and take them back before evening,” says Jose.
Now, he adds, getting workers for plucking cardamom pods or tea leaves is not a serious problem.
Several estate owners in the past tried bringing in workers from Orissa and Bihar, but they are now wary in the wake of reports of Maoist infiltration into Kerala’s forests.
The cardamom plantations in the Idukki district—which accounts for nearly 80% of India’s annual production of 11,000 tonnes—employ about 35,000-40,000 workers, of which at least 60% are from Tamil Nadu, but have settled in and around the estates.
Cardamom estates need workers during the plucking season. Workers are also needed for drying and grinding the spice.
Each plucking takes about two weeks, and with about 10 plucking sessions every season, workers are guaranteed at least 140 days of work, which is more than the 100 days of work that NREGS offers.
Raju Baby, secretary of the National Estate Workers’ Congress, affiliated to the Congress party-led Indian National Trade Union Congress, says the lull in business activity in Tirupur and Coimbatore has come as a blessing in disguise, because workers are now assured of a job during the plucking season.
K.K. Devassia, secretary of the Cardamom Growers’ Association, says the labour shortage will return unless estate owners improve working conditions, such as providing good education to the children of the workers and offering better housing facilities.
“With rice at Rs2 a kg from the Tamil Nadu government and also colour TVs, the working conditions should be such to hold back the workers here,” Devassia says.
In August last year, cardamom workers had struck work to demand an increase in wages from Rs100 to Rs175, which they later revised to Rs139.
Cardamom also has a longer plucking season than other plantation crops such as tea and coffee. Cardamom needs to be plucked once in 45 days over June through February.
With better irrigation systems, the plants flower better and the plucking has gone up to 10 a season, ensuring longer and more stable employment for the workers.
“Tea plantations generally have regular workers, though there used to be a trend among workers to seek greener pastures in Tirupur and Coimbatore,” says managing director of Malankara Plantations and former president of the United Planters’ Association of Southern India, J.K. Thomas.
But the situation there now does not make it better for them to move out, he adds.
Coffee plantations had to depend heavily on labour from Karnataka to pluck beans. The buzz of construction activity in Bangalore and nearby Mysore used to attract workforce from Wayanad in a big way till a year ago, says D. Ravindran, a coffee grower at Vythiri in the Wayanad district of Kerala.
The situation is better now, but workers are attracted by NREGS and this makes things difficult for the coffee estates.
Ravindran says for the 90 days between January and March, the government should stop this programme in coffee-growing areas such as the Wayanad district even as workers are assured of a job for the whole plucking season.
The minimum wages for tea and coffee plantation workers is Rs128.