IDUKKI (KERALA): In September 2015, hundreds of women workers in Munnar’s scenic tea gardens came together in protest, demanding a hefty hike in wages.
The movement spread like wildfire through Kerala in a matter of weeks as women struck work, took out protest marches and grabbed the imagination of a state with a long history of workers’ demonstration. They took on tea giants, tradition unions and political parties and pulled off a miraculous victory in three local body seats in the Kerala panchayat polls last November.
Pembilai Orumai – women’s collective – was hailed as India’s Jasmine Revolution – a reference to popular protests in 2011 that swept the president out of power in Tunisia. But barely six months later, the movement appears to be on its last leg following a drubbing in the assembly polls, plummeting support and rampant factionalism.
The movement candidate got just 650 votes in the Devikulam constituency polls, even less than NOTA – a far cry from the vocal support of thousands of estate labourers who cheered on when Orumai registered as a party in February.
No one expected them to win without financial backing or a ground-level network of political workers but the dismal result was disconcerting. “We were certain that a defeat awaited us, but we wanted to make sure that none of our votes would go to the political parties,” said Lissy Sunny, one of the founding members.
Troubles began soon after the local body win in November, when the party split into two factions led by the founders – Lissy and Gomathy Augustine, who also won one of the three panchayat seats. The latter associated herself to the CPI (M)-affiliated CITU trade union.
Many say the split was triggered because of a tiff between Lissy and Gomathy. Days before the split, Gomathy apparently attempted suicide. “When we competed in the local body elections, we managed to garner 33,000 votes. Now it has come down to 600. That tells you who the Pembilai Orumai stands with,” she said.
The split badly hit the morale of the workers. Since then, instances of assault by trade union leaders have mounted and Orumai functionaries are allegedly being denied loans at cooperative societies. “The women are isolated and coerced at the workplace. Their husbands, whom the trade union leaders influence with alcohol and promises of high positions in the party, harass them daily to dissociate from the organization,” said Lissy.
Last week, members of the LDF unions took their clothes off in front of the Orumai candidate and showered abuses at her husband and sister.
“We were assaulted by them without any provocation. Nobody raised a finger to help us. The words they used on us are unrepeatable,” said Kausalya, sister of candidate Rajeswari. LDF legislator S Rajendran remained unavailable for comment.
But whatever the future might hold for the Orumai, the all-women collective has left its mark on state politics and shaken the monopoly of trade unions, experts say. “Such movements will always have significance as a corrective force to the trade unions. They are rebels and need not be a permanent fixture. Pembilai Orumai can emerge any time the unions drop the ball,” said political analyst NM Pearson.
The women aren’t giving up as well and recount with pride their achievements that include displacing the male-dominated unions, securing a historic hike of Rs 69 that drove up wages from Rs 232 to Rs 301 and ensuring a 20% bonus.
“Whatever they might throw at us, even if we represent only 200, we will continue with this movement,” said Lissy.