Silent Screams: The Plight of Casual Workers in Debt-Ridden Kerala

Casual workers known as Sakshratha Preraks, who serve as educators and facilitators for school dropouts, have been on an indefinite strike, for almost 3 months, demanding payment of their unpaid salaries and a resolution regarding their future.
Silent Screams: The Plight of Casual Workers in Debt-Ridden Kerala

Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala— It was with profound sorrow that the community of Pathanapuram, located some 70 kilometers distant from the metropolis of Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala's capital, learned of the untimely passing of E. S. Bijumon, a 49-year-old luminary of the Kerala literacy mission. Bijumon, who was the recipient of the prestigious Indian president's award for the best literary worker, was discovered hanging in his humble abode, where his venerated mother and two sisters, along with their progeny, reside.

E. S. Bijumon
E. S. Bijumon

Since the fateful Thursday, the erudite sakshratha preraks of Kerala have been regularly engaging in telephonic and textual exchanges, to ensure that their colleagues are faring well. A prerak based in Kottarakkara, the picturesque southern town of Kerala, spoke to The Mooknayak and conveyed their feelings of isolation and concern. "We stand alone in this struggle, and we don't wish to encounter any more tragedies," said Sheeja C. The prerak also shed light on the root cause of the unfortunate demise of their esteemed colleague, Biju mash (teacher), who, overwhelmed by the stress induced by the non-payment of his six months' honorarium, took the drastic step of hanging himself. As emissaries of education, preraks aid students who have discontinued their studies to rekindle their passion for learning and continue their academic pursuits.

Sheeja revealed that in a recent Google meeting, Biju mash (teacher) appeared despondent and spoke of his disappointment regarding the lack of provisions made for clearing their long-outstanding six months' worth of unremunerated salaries within the newly presented Kerala Budget 2023-24. Sheeja disclosed that Biju mash even offered himself as a sacrificial lamb in hopes of resolving the ongoing strike with a positive outcome. "Initially, we thought his offer was made in jest. I even reprimanded him for making such a suggestion. However, it became apparent that he was quite serious in his stance," Sheeja stated with a note of regret in her voice.

Casual Workers Forced to the Brink

The recently presented 2023-24 budget by the Kerala government has caused considerable distress among a contingent of sakshratha preraks. These individuals, who serve as educators and facilitators for school and pre-college dropouts, have been on an indefinite strike for 84 days, staging a peaceful protest in front of the Kerala Secretariat in Thiruvananthapuram. Representing 1,714 preraks, they are demanding payment of six months' unpaid salary and a resolution regarding their department's future. As block nodal preraks, they are entitled to an honorarium of Rs. 15,000, while junior preraks receive Rs. 12,500 and Rs. 10,000. Despite the generous compensation, each prerak must annually secure and mentor 102 dropouts to continue their education.

Sheeja also said that the remuneration of a prerak depends on the number of students they assist in continuing their education. If the number falls short of 102, the honorarium is reduced to 60 percent. The majority of preraks receive an honorarium between Rs 3,000 and 6,000, which is insufficient in the current economy plagued by inflation. As a result, some preraks are struggling with loan repayments and face the threat of eviction from banks. Tragically, a few have even succumbed to illnesses due to the lack of financial resources for medical treatment and necessary medication for conditions like cancer and diabetes.

Bleak Future

In a conversation with The Mooknayak, Bijumon's mother, Vijamma E, related that her son held high hopes for the allocation of funds towards clearing his unpaid salary in the recently presented 2023-24 budget. She spoke of her son's frustration with the lack of decent pay and working conditions despite dedicating 26 years to the teaching profession. Vijamma further stated that the family had been grappling with financial difficulties, with Bijumon having to resort to borrowing from friends to make the journey from Pathanapuram to Thiruvananthapuram. The bereaved mother expressed her uncertainty and fear for the future.

The deceased was a fervent social advocate and supporter of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), and reportedly sought an audience with the Kerala finance minister, K N Balagopal, to plead for a budget allocation for preraks. Sajukhan, a close friend, lawyer, and member of the Pathanapuram grama panchayat, informed The Mooknayak that Bijumon had held high hopes for a favorable outcome, as the finance minister resided in the same community. Regrettably, the recent budget presentation failed to address the matter.

Silent Screams: The Plight of Casual Workers in Debt-Ridden Kerala
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Confusion over jurisdiction

Perplexity persists amongst the sakshratha preraks, as the government's decision to transfer their jurisdiction from the education department to civic bodies in 2022 remains unfinished. This has engendered a climate of uncertainty and confusion among the preraks, who are still uncertain as to which department they belong to.

Sheeja stated that the lack of clarity in their department and confusion in salary disbursement only adds to their struggles. They are constantly being shifted from one department to another, with no clear answer as to where they belong. This is making it difficult for them to receive their salaries and benefits as they should.

Silent Screams: The Plight of Casual Workers in Debt-Ridden Kerala
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Out of the total 1.27 crore workers in Kerala, 73 lakh are self-employed or casual workers, similar to Bijumon and Sheeja, who are finding it tough to make ends meet in the current economy. This is leading to widespread financial difficulties and in some cases, even tragedies, as people are unable to make ends meet and are unable to access adequate medical care for their ailments. The government's decision to put preraks under civic bodies has also created confusion and uncertainty about their department and salary disbursement. The situation highlights the need for a comprehensive social security system for all workers, including self-employed and casual workers, to ensure that they are able to live with dignity and security.

Sociologist Mini Mohan expresses her concern to The Mooknayak about the increase in suicides due to the worsening economic condition. She said that the 2023-24 budget has imposed a Rs 2 social security cess on fuel, which will only drive inflation higher. Furthermore, the government has raised the rates of water and electricity, making it even more challenging for self-employed and casual workers to make ends meet. The rise in the cost of essential goods is expected to make life even harder for casual workers and their families.

Silent Screams: The Plight of Casual Workers in Debt-Ridden Kerala
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Suicides, a growing concern

  • Since January, financial stress has claimed six lives including two farmers, in Kerala.

  • According to the National Crime Records Bureau crime statistics 2021 report, Kerala stands in the fifth position when in suicide rates in India.

  • A & N Islands reported the highest rate of suicide (39.7) followed by Sikkim (39.2), Puducherry (31.8), Telangana (26.9), and Kerala (26.9).

  • All India's rate of suicides was 12.0 during the year 2021.

  • In absolute numbers, suicides in Kerala rose from 8,500 in 2020 to 9,549 the year after, accounting for nearly 5.8% of the total 1,64,033 suicides in the country.

  • A news report written by a Kerala-based NGO, claims that around 34 of the total number of people who committed suicide in Kerala were daily wagers.

  • According to the NCRB report, in India also, the maximum number of people who committed suicide in India are daily wagers

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