Monday, January 03, 2005

Crisis drives the bus to Kutta [03012005]

Crisis drives the bus to Kutta

By P. Sainath

It is only the second stop yet on the road to Kutta and there is not a seat
left vacant on the bus. Nowadays, there are 24 such trips between
Manathavady in Wayanad and Kutta in Kodagu, Karnataka. - Photo: P. Sainath

Wayanad (Kerala): The bus journey from Mananthavady in Kerala to Kutta in
Karnataka is a tense one for B.J. Mani. His colleagues are missing. In the
estate where he must labour on the Karnataka side of the border, Mani won't
be allowed to work without the three-man team he promised. "If the others
don't show up, I have to go look for them," he says. "Which means I will
lose even more on bus fares and, quite likely, the day's wages as well."

Thousands of people from Wayanad are crossing the border into Karnataka and
Tamil Nadu every single day, looking for work. Several do this journey two
or three times a week, sometimes more. Mani is just one amongst dozens
jostling for space in the Kerala State Road Transport Corporation bus that
carries us at this moment. Wayanad's rich cash-crop economy has fallen
apart, shattering employment in the district. This single 6 a.m. bus from
here to Kutta in Karnataka's Kodagu district clearly captures that process.

Bus conductor Lawrence Jacob, who has been on this route since 1997, has
watched it unfold. "There were six trips a day to Kutta in 1995. Today, you
are on the first of 24 trips daily - a 400 per cent increase." Prior to
1995, the KSRTC did not have a bus on this route.

Lawrence, who is also an activist and local CITU leader, links the explosion
in the traffic to Wayanad's ongoing agrarian crisis. "The people in this bus
will work in Kodagu district at half the wage they used to get here. That
is, on those days that they do get work. Many are trapped into fake
agreements which their new bosses have no intention of honouring. But they
have no choice. There's no work in Wayanad."

Five years ago, says Lawrence, the bus was dominated by poor adivasis. They
are still the main travellers and their numbers have grown. But now there
are also many masons, carpenters, electricians, students and traders. Then
there are non-adivasi farm labourers in large numbers. And small and medium
farmers, too. A few of the latter trying to lease land cheaply in Kodagu to
cultivate ginger and other cash crops. At home, it's all in a mess.

"When there was work in Wayanad," says Mani, "I got a daily wage of up to
Rs. 120. Now I work for Rs. 80 a day in Kolikuppa." It's worse than it
looks. "My bus fare to the place is Rs. 34 - one way." Mani tries coping by
doing the journey only three times a week and staying over the other days.
"It means I spend very little time with my family. But what's the way out?
This slump in pepper and coffee prices really hit us."

P. K. Siddique is an estate worker too, heading for Kodagu. He gets Rs. 75 a
day. "And no bus fare," he laughs. Which means he pays the Rs. 27 it costs
to his particular stop and back. Besides him sits Shinoj Thomas, a mason.
With his skills, he can make up to Rs.150 a day in Karnataka minus the Rs.
30 he spends on bus tickets. "But I get a maximum of 15-20 days work in a
month," he says.

"All work in Wayanad has come to a standstill," says Thomas. "Just see the
countless unfinished houses in the district. These houses were begun when
farming was doing well. Once the crisis came along, construction ceased. No
one had any money to continue. That's why we work across the border for much
less than what we used to earn in Wayanad."

We're just past the second stop and the bus is already more than full. It
has 48 seats, but with over 20 standees it now carries around 70 people. Not
all 24 trips travel this full, but 55 to 60 would be the average, says
conductor Lawrence. "there's at least 1200 people on this route daily," he
says. "And that goes up quite a bit on market day. Mind you, the ticket cost
(Rs.13.50 till Kutta) is higher now than it was a few years ago. Yet, the
numbers of people going has shot up in these past two years."

"Construction workers used to come to Wayanad, not leave it," K. Nirmalan, a
KSRTC workers' union leader at the Sulthan Bathery depot had told us. "Then
construction stopped. Plantations drew a lot of workers. Then those went
into lockouts and closures. Earlier pepper was booming. Now that's gone.
Even this rise in outgoing buses doesn't tell the whole story. There are
many services other than KSRTC's. Those of the other states - and also a
host of illegal ones."

Many on the bus, like Shinoj Thomas, had not ventured out before 2002. Now
they do so in thousands. Buses on most outgoing routes have doubled to cope
with the flow. That from several centres - and not just to Kutta. The basic
story is one of comprehensive collapse of employment in Wayanad. Each
traveller out of the district reflects that in his or her own way. Thousands
of people, their earnings halved or worse, seek unsteady work across the

A little over an hour later, in Kutta, a dejected B.J. Mani says his
colleagues have not shown up for work. "I'll have to go back looking for
them. "My whole day will be gone, not to speak of the bus fare." He boards
the return bus an hour later. Meanwhile, new loads of workers descend from
the incoming bus. People mill around waiting for transport that will take
them further into Kodagu. A group of seven young carpenters from Wayanad is
amongst them. "I've been doing this for two years," says A.M. Biju from the
group. "We will stay a month in Karnataka in a room provided by the man we
are working for. Before, there was a lot of work in Wayanad. Now there is
none, so here we are. That is our story."

On the bus to Kutta, everybody has a story.

[From The Hindu Newspaper]

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