Despite ban, weird practice of Nokku Koolie is bringing bad name to Kerala
A consultant with a Mumbai-based private logistics company Rajeswari S Pillai, who was transporting a heavy equipment cargo to the Vikram Sarabhai Space Research Centre (VSSC), took 10 days to cover 70 kms from Kollam and Thumba, on the outskirts of the Kerala’s capital Thiruvananthapuram. Almost every day she walked six to 10 km with the consignment-laden truck with 80 wheels that moved at a snail’s pace.
It became such a spectacle that people waited for the arrival of the truck along the national highway and police and district authorities were at their best to ensure a smooth passage to the giant truck. But a dramatic twist was awaiting her at the finishing point, where a group of people lied on the road asking for ‘nokku koolie’ for unloading the heavy cargo. Nokku Koolie is the money charged by trade union workers for the work either done by machine or others as their right.
She pleaded that only heavy cranes can unload the cargo but they said they had no problem with it as long as they were given gawking charges. Initially, the demand was for ₹10 lakh but later it came down to ₹5 lakh. But she stood her ground. After three hours, the blockade was finally lifted after the chief minister’s office intervened and some of the protestors were arrested. Later, 50 people were booked.
“I am against paying people who are not doing any work. I don’t want to explain the incident anymore. But I wish it is the last such Nokku Kooli incident in my beautiful state,” she said.
The incident invited enough bad publicity and last week the high court cited this while hearing another case related to Nokku Kooli and asked the government to explain new measures taken to end the menace once and for all.
“This practice was banned years ago but it is still continuing. It is inviting a bad name to the state. We are getting regular complaints. The government should take strict actions against those who demand it,” the HC said last week and sought a detailed report from the state police chief in two weeks.
Nokku Koolie was banned in 2018 by the left government but it is still prevalent in many parts of the state. Interestingly in 2002 a law- Kerala Loading and Unloading (Regulation of wages and restriction of unlawful practices) was framed to restrict the unholy practice but it continued. In 2017, the high court had pulled up the state government, forcing it to ban the practice in 2018, but the menace is far from over.
There were many judgments against the organised crime of fleecing but often police and the government authorities turn a blind eye to it which literally pushed the state into a graveyard of industries. When people complain against them, police act against workers but many remain mute fearing retaliation by militant trade union workers.
Fed up, the government is planning to give more teeth to the law banning Nokku Kooli. “The government is mulling to include stringent provisions including non-bailable provisions to deal with the menace,” said a senior official who did not want to be named. Though almost all trade unions admit that such worn out practices invite bad name they discreetly support such elements.
Last week K N Nair, who was building a house on the outskirts of Thiruvananthapuram, brought marbles and other building material from north India, and workers sought ₹25,000 to unload it. When he refused, he was threatened and he finally called the police. Though police settled the issue, he was advised by some local leaders that antagonising head-load workers will invite their wrath, forcing him to pay ₹8000 to them for work done by others. “I was scared that they would destroy unloaded material in the night,” he said.
Around 300,000 head-load workers are registered under the workers welfare board representing various trade unions and their resting places on roadsides are a common sight in the state, besides these registered workers, many others operate to fleece money. They survey industrial areas and residential colonies frequently to spot vehicles carrying goods. Usually they charge exorbitantly for doing the work or demand payment for merely watching while goods are unloaded by cranes or by in-house workers.
Statistics with the labour department shows only 11 major cases were filed since the ban came into force in 2018 but industrialists and others said it was only the tip of the iceberg and many complaints were getting withdrawn forcefully. They said the illegal practice enjoyed political patronage and militant workers got away easily. Though there were units of the Kerala Head Load Workers Welfare Board and labour offices in every district to deal with such issues, many dreaded to approach them fearing retaliation, said builders and industrialists.
“Gawking charges is an unhealthy practice and it invites bad publicity. If workers are facing any problem it should be addressed. There should be a proper mechanism to enforce labour rules at the grassroots,” a spokesman of the Confederation of Indian Industry, Kerala chapter, said on condition of anonymity.
“Leaders’ words and deeds never match in the state. They secretly support such elements and disown them in public. These leaders are responsible for making the state a graveyard of industries,” said Kitex group MD Sabu Verghese. His group recently shifted its base to Telangana, alleging a witch hunt in Kerala.
Many trade union leaders said they were against the practice but claimed that a concerted campaign was on to portray workers in bad light and dent the state’s image citing isolated incidents. “We are against it. We have taken strong action against erring ones. But some vested interests portray isolated incidents to paint a grim picture,” said CITU (Centre of Indian Trade Union) state president Anathalavattom Anandan.
Anandan said the equipment-laden truck at Thumba was blocked by local people led by a parish priest demanding jobs for natives and the blame was conveniently put on workers of the area. The priest was not available for his comments. But local people said head-load workers were there and they provoked local people to join the stir and when it turned into a big issue, they backtracked.