Tirunelveli: Twenty long years rolled on since 17 tea plantation workers of Manjolai tea estate above Manimutharu hills in Tirunelveli district got killed in a police excess, when they marched towards Tirunelveli district collector’s office demanding wage hike on July 23, 1999. Their struggle, however, did not go futile completely and now they get a daily wage on par with their counterparts in the Kerala state and higher than the workers in Karnataka.
“Then we were not allowed to have kitchen gardens behind our quarters and the protest pivoted by Puthiya Tamilagam (PT) and the CPI(M) too earned us the right to have garden behind our houses,” said Vimal of Manjolai estate.
However, The Manjolai plantation workers now face a bigger problem of livelihood as the entire plantation area of 8,373 acres, now under the Bombay Burma Trading Corporation (BBTC), has been declared as reserve forest area by the Tamil Nadu state government in September last year.
The BBTC’s objection to the state government’s move had failed as the Tirunelveli district court dismissed their petition and the Madurai high court bench too upheld the lower court’s order. However, in a partial relief, it allowed BBTC to possess the leased area till the lease period is over on February 11, 2028.
Though BBTC has approached the Supreme Court to further extend its lease period beyond 2028, the workers are not hopeful of the case. “We are not taking sides in the issue, but to ensure our livelihood, we want the tea estate to be run either by the private company (BBTC) or by the state government,” feel many of the plantation workers, who have been working at Manjolai hills over generations since 1929.
As the government is firm in its stand of converting the tea plantation areas at Manjolai, Nalumukku, Oothu and Kuthiraivetti areas in the hills as ‘reserved forest’ after ten years, even laying proper roads has taken a beating.
The highly battered road leading to the hill is just three-m wide with only two mini buses operated by the TNSTC between Ambasamudram and Oothu (the place above Manjolai) twice a day. “As the workers welfare hospital once functional at Manjolai is now reduced to just a dispensary, we have to travel 40-km down to Ambasamudram for any treatment,” complained the workers, who too added that even the teachers to the government high school functioning at Manjolai find it hard to come for duty in time due to bad roads and bus services.
The BBTC administration seems to be in a wind-up mood, as according to a company source production in its three estates has drastically come down to around nine lakh kilos from the previous 30 lakh kilos due to the changing climate. The PT leader Dr Krishnasamy paid homage to the memory of the workers killed, here on Tuesday.