Indian Police Service (IPS) officer K. Sethuraman is convinced that the devastating Pettimudi landslide, which occurred near Kerala hill station Munnar last fortnight, was a “man-made” disaster, not an environmental catastrophe that can conveniently be clocked up to climate change. 61 people, mostly tea estate workers and their families, were buried alive in the landslide that occurred after heavy rains, while 9 people are still missing.
“If they were provided with their own land and safe houses away from the highly vulnerable, ecologically fragile zone of the tea estate, the landslide may not have killed anyone. They all lived in a narrow-spaced cluster of workers’ quarters, known locally as ‘layams’, which was located in an area highly vulnerable to landslides.
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The tragedy is the latest example of how marginalised communities are becoming victims of natural disasters,’’ said Sethuraman, currently the DIG of Kannur range.
He knows first-hand the challenges that come with such a precarious existence—Sethuraman was born in a tiny one-room house in a layam, in the Cholamala division of the Kanan Devan Hills Plantations, barely 20 km away from Pettimudi.
As landslides and massive floods turn into an annual affair in the hill regions of Kerala, around 16,000 plantation workers who live in cramped layams across 50-odd tea estates in and around Munnar are mired in worry and insecurity.
Most of them are landless Dalits from Tamil Nadu whose ancestors migrated to Kerala decades ago, and fear the day their employer or the inevitable retirement will turf them out of the only home they have. Many workers are forced to pull their children out of school to work in the plantations so that they are guaranteed at least a living space.
While the Pinarayi Vijayan-led state government has promised a one-time compensation to those affected by the landslide, the real issue is one of land ownership. Activists say these workers have been left out of the much-trumpeted land reforms initiated by Kerala’s first government, led by E.M.S Namboodiripad, and implemented by successive governments.
“The land reforms have exempted big plantations from its purview, saying they are giving jobs to a large number of plantation workers. However, the plantations have implemented a modern version of slavery, with poor labourers remaining unprivileged.
The land reforms have failed in the case of not only Tamil-speaking plantation workers but also in the case of Dalits and tribals in the state,’’ said Dalit rights activist and scholar S. Santhosh Kumar.
Activists also allege that Kanan Devan Hills Plantation Co. Pvt. Ltd (KDHP), which operates the plantation where the landslide occurred, has not delivered promised benefits to workers or improved their living conditions in any material way.
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IPS officer Sethuraman, whose mother Subbammal was illiterate and father Karuppayya studied only up to Class IV, said he was fortunate to be able to study well and get admission at Sainik School in Udumalpet region of Tamil Nadu. But he’s painfully aware that his story is the exception, not the rule.
“My people have been living for generations in these clusters without any basic amenities and periodic repairs. They are Dalits without ownership over even a single cent of land. I am categorical that my people deserve houses in safe zones with ownership over the land to be assigned to them.
In Munnar and surrounding areas, the key question is land, not one-time compensation to the families of those who perish in tragedies,’’ said Sethuraman, who was deeply disturbed by the Pettimudi tragedy.