As the lease expiry looms, the future of thousands of workers  hangs in the balance, with their hopes pinned on the state government's intervention to secure their homes and livelihoods.
As the lease expiry looms, the future of thousands of workers hangs in the balance, with their hopes pinned on the state government's intervention to secure their homes and livelihoods.Pic- Selvakumar/X handle

600 Families, Mostly Dalits, Face Homelessness and Job Loss: Will the Government Hear the Pleas of Manjolai Tea Estate Workers in Tamil Nadu?

BBTCL, which has operated the estate, must hand over the land to the forest department by 2028. In preparation for this transition, the company has issued a notification to extend a Voluntary Retirement Scheme (VRS) for workers at its tea estates in Manjolai, Manimuthar, and Oothu in Tirunelveli district.

Tirunelveli, Tamil Nadu – “I have worked all my life in this tea plantation. Plucking leaves is all that I know. My hometown is Changanacherry in Kerala, but I don’t have a home or land there. With just 1800 rupees as monthly pension and no bank balance to build a home now at this age, i dont know what is in store tomorrow ” says 64-year-old Sobia James, sitting under a thatched two-room shelter, worried about her future.

Sobia is one of thousands of workers on the brink of losing their homes and livelihoods at the Manjolai tea estate in Tamil Nadu. The Tea Estates are located in Manjolai, Kakachi, Uthu Nalumku areas in the Western Ghats near Ambasamutram. More than 2,000 workers live and work here.

This time, however, the villain is not the employer but the technicalities surrounding the completion of a 99-year lease held by the Bombay Burmah Trading Corporation Ltd (BBTCL).

BBTCL, which has operated the Manjolai estate, must hand over the land to the forest department by 2028. In preparation for this transition, the company has issued a notification to extend a Voluntary Retirement Scheme (VRS) for workers at its tea estates in Manjolai, Manimuthar, and Oothu in Tirunelveli district.

“The workers have no issue with the VRS. The company is offering benefits as per the eligibility and service period of every employee. However, what we demand is that instead of surrendering the land to the forest department, the state government should take over the tea plantation and oversee its functioning so that thousands of people who have been living here for generations are not left in the lurch,” Murugan Kanna, a worker and member of the workers' union shared details with The Mooknayak. Kannan states that about 600 families are affected by the lease expiry and the winding up of the plantation by BBTCL, with 80 percent of them being Dalits.

“This is not just the case of Manjolai but also Kakkachi, Oothu, and other estates. We have submitted a memorandum to the state government, MPs, MLAs, and political parties, urging them to intervene and save the workers from eviction. June 30 is the last working day, and we will all have to vacate our homes here, which were provided by the company. This is our only shelter,” he adds.

Sobia, sharing her plight, says she served the plantation for almost 30 years and retired four years ago. “When I started my job here, I earned just 22 rupees per day. Gradually, the wage increased, and when I retired, I was earning 307 rupees per day. Four years ago, I didn’t have any place to go, so I requested the company to retain me. They agreed, and I was among the many workers who opted to stay even after retirement. We are not permanent now but continue as plantation workers, receiving daily wages. Presently, the wage is 454 rupees a day,” she says.

Her husband, James, had also worked at the plantation, but his service was brief before he passed away. “I receive a pension of 1800 rupees monthly, but I am not getting my husband’s widow pension. Despite following up extensively in the past, the company says that since he did not complete the minimum required service period, he is not entitled to a pension, and so I am bereft of it. Is there any way I can get it?” Sobia asks.

As the lease expiry looms, the future of thousands of workers like Sobia hangs in the balance, with their hopes pinned on the state government's intervention to secure their homes and livelihoods.

Amidst the political efforts by various party leaders to protect the livelihood of the people, the Bombay Burma Trading Corporation has issued a voluntary retirement notice to the Manjolai workers.
Amidst the political efforts by various party leaders to protect the livelihood of the people, the Bombay Burma Trading Corporation has issued a voluntary retirement notice to the Manjolai workers.Pic- Selvakumar/X handle

Historic Lease Nearing End Puts Workers' Livelihoods at Stake

The Manjolai tea estate, once under the control of the Singambatti Zamin before independence, was leased to The Bombay Burma Trading Corporation in 1929 for 99 years. Despite numerous changes in government administration, this lease prevented the forest department from taking control of the dense forest area of Manjolai.

With the lease set to expire in 2028, the forest department is now making efforts to bring Manjolai, Nalumku, and Kakachi under its jurisdiction.

As part of this process, the government has begun taking steps to evict the workers, even though the lease period still has four years remaining.

The urgency from the government stems from the logistical challenges of managing and transporting the produce from the tea estates, which could take several months.

Consequently, the livelihoods of the workers who have lived and worked there for more than 90 years are now in jeopardy, leaving them deeply concerned about their future.

Credit- ETV Bharat

Voluntary Retirement Scheme Offered Amidst Eviction Concerns

Amidst the political efforts by various party leaders to protect the livelihood of the people, the Bombay Burma Trading Corporation has issued a voluntary retirement notice to the Manjolai workers.

Employees are being invited to receive benefits through the Voluntary Retirement Scheme (VRS) introduced by PPTC Limited, aimed at aiding the sustainable management of the Singambatti Group’s business. Alongside all statutory benefits, workers who opt for voluntary retirement will receive a gratuity and a bonus for the year 2023-24.

The application forms for VRS will be available for inspection at the Mancholai, Manimuthar, and Uthu Estate Offices, as well as the Tea Factory Office, until June 14. Workers have been instructed to submit their applications for voluntary retirement by this date.

Amidst circulating reports on social media about the eviction of Mancholai workers, the employees are in shock as the tea estate company has officially offered voluntary retirement applications to the workers.

Sobia, who retired four years ago, after completion of serviceable age reveals that she received a meager amount of 1.40 lakh rupees as benefits, which falls far short of what is required to purchase a house. For her, settling with her son remains the only viable option if she is forced to evacuate her current residence.

Pic- Selvakumar/X handle

Diverse Workforce Faces Uncertain Future

The workers at Manjolai tea estate are mostly Tamilians hailing from Scheduled Castes, with some 30 families from Kerala. "There are around 10 households from Assam who migrated to the plantation from their homeland. Now, they too are worried and thinking of going back, hoping they can find work in Assam tea gardens," says Sobia.

The company provides accommodation for the workers—small, independent homes with thatched and tin roofs.

The workers start their day at 7:30 am and work until 12:00 pm. After a one-hour lunch break, they work from 1:00 pm to 4:00 pm. It is a laborious job, picking leaves with scissors, but the payment is relatively low, currently at 454 rupees a day.

In the vicinity, there exists a small market where worker families procure their daily supplies of vegetables and groceries. Additionally, essential amenities such as a school, hospital, and other necessities are available within reach. However, for banking services, individuals are required to travel to a location situated downhill.

Though the homes, constructed during the pre-independence era, are old and damaged, the workers find solace in the fact that they at least have a roof over their heads presently.

However, the majority of these families are living in poverty, lacking the financial means to build their own homes. Some retired workers, whose children are settled and have secured respectable jobs, express less concern. However, those in the age bracket of 40-45, with children still studying, are deeply worried about their bleak future.

Political Leaders Advocate for Government Takeover of Manjolai Tea Estate

In the meantime, various political leaders have been urging the Tamil Nadu government to take over and manage the Manjolai tea estate to protect the livelihoods of its workers. Recently, the STPI party, led by its state president Nellie Mubarak, organized a protest demonstration in the Ambasamutram area, demanding that the government assume control of the Manjolai tea plantation.

Additionally, former speaker and DMK district secretary Avudayappan submitted a petition to the Nellie Collector, echoing the same demand.

(File Pic)
(File Pic)

When Manjolai workers were killed for demanding wage rise: Tamil Nadu's Jallianwala Bagh

Dalit rights activist and author Shalin Maria Lawrence sheds light on the dark history of Manjolai workers, emphasizing that oppression has haunted them for decades. Referring to an incident in the late 1990s, Shalin recounts the harrowing experiences faced by the workers.

The tea estate plantation workers at Manjolai Hills near Tirunelveli faced a grim reality of distressing conditions and meagre daily wages of ₹70, coupled with arduous labor.

Their plight was compounded by forced residence in sheds with dismal facilities, while basic rights such as rearing cattle or cultivating a garden were denied to them.

In a bid to protest against these inhumane circumstances, a significant number of workers marched towards the Collectorate in Tirunelveli on 23rd July 1999.

Led by political figures like S. Balakrishnan of Tamil Maanila Congress (TMC) and President of Puthiya Tamizhagam Dr. Krishnaswamy, the procession, reportedly comprising around 5000 people, aimed to submit a memorandum demanding better wages and the release of 652 workers arrested earlier for staging a demonstration.

Despite obtaining police permission for the protest, the peaceful demonstration turned into a massacre as police officers halted the procession, refusing negotiation for the submission of the petition. Subsequent violence, including lathi charges, firing in the air, and pelting stones and bricks at protestors, drove panic among the crowd.

This chaos led some to flee towards the Tamirabarani river bank, evoking memories of the Jallianwala Bagh tragedy.

Tragically, seventeen lives, including those of two women and a two-year-old child, were lost in the brutal crackdown, leaving an indelible mark on the plight of these oppressed workers.

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