Saturday, November 05, 2011

Coffee, served dark: The stunning natural beauty of Coorg hides a shocking truth.

IIPM Mumbai Campus

In its sprawling coffee plantations, over 50,000 bonded labourers are trapped in a system of slavery reminiscent of pre-Civil War America

Coorg, nestled in the Western Ghats, has produced great military strategists like KM Cariappa and KS Thimmaiah as well as brave soldiers for the Indian Army. But the treatment that the coffee growers of the area are doling out to their labour force isn't something that the native Kodavas can be proud of.

In Coorg, workers, mainly tribals, are bought and sold like cattle by coffee estate owners to work on their plantations. The exploitation happens in the garb of a money-lending system that leads to the workers losing their freedom completely.

Ravi is one such labourer. A Jenu-Kuruba tribal of Nanachchi-Gadde village, he took an advance of Rs 4000 from Kotramadu Ramesh, an estate owner, before joining the workforce. “I worked there for three and a half years on a wage of Rs 85 a day. The owner would make me surrender Rs 50 every day as loan repayment. Yet, more than three years later I was still in debt,” laments Ravi.

But that wasn't the end of his woes. Ramesh sold Ravi to another estate owner (known simply as 'Bellary gate collector') for Rs 4000. To meet his needs, the poor tribal took an advance of Rs 2000 from his new employer and sank deeper into debt. Says Ravi: “He too would deduct money from my daily wages. I never asked how much my wage was and how much was being deducted, nor did he ever explain.”

Ravi's debt burden climbed to Rs 7,000 within a year. “That was the amount my previous owner paid 'Bellary gate collector' to buy me back,” states Ravi. “I've no idea how my loan swelled to Rs 7,000.” Ravi is trapped for life in an arrangement he has no control over. He obviously isn't alone. The slave trade is rampant across the 200,000-hectare coffee belt of Coorg.

Coffee cultivation, particularly at the time of harvest, requires huge manpower even when a plantation is as small as one or two acres. With the number of labourers in Coorg villages and tribal hamlets diminishing rapidly, owners have devised devious ways to 'retain' workers.

Coffee estate owners dole out some money – usually in multiples of Rs 1,000 – when they hire a worker. This loan doesn't get repaid despite decades of hard labour and wage deductions. Much worse, in many cases it swells to as much as Rs 30,000, which is completely beyond the means of the toiling tribals. So the workers are doomed to work in the coffee estates until death sets them free. They are transferred back and forth between the coffee estate for a fee. It is the employer who gets the money. The hapless tribal labourer's 'workplace' changes, his fate doesn't.

Appanna's saga of slavery is just as bad. “My wife and I work in Kallichanda Vishnu Karyappa’s estate. I had taken Rs 8000 as advance while joining. We've been toiling here for over two years but the loan burden refuses to go away,” he says.

Before the couple came to Karyappa's estate, they worked for nearly eight years in Bachikanda Annayyandan’s plantations. When he expressed a desire to quit, Annayyandan told Appanna that the latter owed him Rs. 5000. “It was a lie. I was paid Rs 60 as daily wages and the owner would cut Rs 100 to Rs 150 a week. Eight years on, he claimed I still owed him Rs 5000,” says Appanna. Karyappa then paid Annayyandan Rs 5000 and bought Appanna and his wife, residents of Kodange village. “I now receive Rs 100 as daily wages,” says the tribal worker. Most coffee estate workers are tribals living around Nagarhole reserve forest. They have similar stories to share. Thrown out of the forest, they are compelled to work for the coffee growers.

The population of Thithimathi area, made up of 36 hamlets, is around 46,000. Nearly everyone here works in a coffee estate and is trapped in the cycle of exploitation. Nobody dares ask for details of wages, debt and deductions. If anybody ups and quit his job, the debt automatically increases. The coffee estate owners systematically exploit the fear that stalks the workers as well as the disunity in their ranks.

“My wife and I work for Kalichanda Dileep Sommanna for the last three years. He bought us by repaying my ‘debt’ of Rs 7000 to my earlier owner, Tadiyangada Hari. Here in this estate, he has been deducting Rs 100-150 every week and yet the loan has now swelled to Rs 15,000. Yes, I did borrow some money for household expenses, but the amounts were always meagre. Now nobody is ready to hire me as the loan burden on me is too big. There's no escape,” Ganapathy tells us.

When TSI visited the area, many such ‘slaves’ encircled us, desperate to articulate their miserable tale. Shivaji, Kempa, Boja, Kalpana, Bojappa – each one of them was is a victim of this pernicious system.

“This is nothing but bonded labour. That a practice of buying and selling workers continues in the 21st century is a shame,” says Somanna, a lecturer who has had to bear the wrath of the Kodava coffee estate owners for taking up the workers' cause.

The exploitation of coffee estate workers is also rampant in the estates of Chikmagalur, Shimoga and other mountainous districts. As the oppression mounts, the resistance is gathering momentum.

BS Surya Prakash, president, Coorg Coffee, says:“If a system equivalent to slavery still exists in Coorg, it is shameful and condemnable. I came to know about this only after you told me now. Since I am in the Bangalore factory, I really don’t know what kind of relationship is maintained between workers and the estate owners. It is true that coffee harvesting requires more manpower and estate owners compete among themselves and use various methods to bind the workers.”

Retired Justice V.S. Malimat says: “Legal action can be taken on those who practice bonded labour under Bonded Labour Abolition Act. No owner can force any labourer to work under him/her on the pretext of loan, dues or any other previous commitments. All the workers are free to change the owners, irrespective of how much he/she owes his/her owner.”

Budakattu Krishikara Sangh (Tribal Agricultural Labour Association) is closing its ranks to oppose this present-day form of 'slavery'. “Oppression unleashed on the tribals assumes various forms. If the workers protest, false robbery cases are filed against them. The estate owners, who have strong links with politicians and bureaucrats, have even tried to slap false cases on the association. Whistle-blowers in the administration are instantly transferred,” alleges Thimma, secretary of the Tribal Agricultural Labour Association.

The association's interventions are slowly but surely bearing fruit. Appu, a boy who has been working in a coffee plantation since the age of eight, was repeatedly refused permission to go home for a break. The association filed a case against the owner to secure Appu's release. However, the young boy hasn't received a single penny as wages from the owner.

Some owners, however, do oppose the system. “Yes, exploitation does take place,” says Kotrangada Subrahmani, an estate owner. "However, in our estate we provide facilities like provident fund and medical allowance to workers.” But this is obviously an exception.

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