In 2003, when Kerala organised its first Global Investors Meet, the then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, while talking about Keralites’ Gulf connection, remittances, social progress and economic backwardness, cited the plot of a 1988 Mohanlal-starrer.
“I am told that there is a Malayalam movie called ‘Varavelpu’ in which your famous actor Mohanlal acts as a Gulf-returned Keralite. He invests his savings in a small business venture with high hopes. But in the end, he is forced to close it down after going through many unpleasant experiences,” the PM said, adding that the conference should serve as an occasion for introspection.
Fifteen years later, not much has changed. Political high handedness and militant trade unionism continues to give trouble to small-time Gulf investors returning home.
Last Friday, Sugathan Paramu Achary, a 64-year-old Gulf returnee, hanged himself inside a shed where he wanted to set up an automobile workshop. The All India Youth Federation (AIYF), the youth wing of the ruling Communist Party of India (CPI) in Kerala, had objected to him doing this, citing that the land was a paddy field. Sugathan had reportedly gone ahead and levelled the land and set up a workshop there. Sugathan’s family alleged that harassment from politicians drove him to take the final extreme step.
Sugathan and his two sons had been running a workshop in Oman. Sugathan had moved to Muscat about 40 years ago, and a couple of decades later, his sons joined him there. With the changing labour rules in that country, they decided to return and set up business in their hometown in Kerala.
“The situation in the Gulf is not as good as it was in the past. A lot of labour rules are changing. It is quite difficult to survive there. So father, my brother and I, decided to come back and set up a workshop here. But politicians killed my father,” Sujith Sugathan, son of Sugathan, told The Lede.
“We took a land on lease from a friend. Some 25 years ago, the paddy field had been converted into commercial land. When we talked to the Panchayat, they were cooperative. So we moved with our plans to build a workshop on the land taken for lease. But the high handedness drove my father to kill himself,” Sujith added.
According to rules, the Panchayat’s permission is required to convert paddy fields into land which can be used for commercial purposes. Sugathan’s son claimed that the Panchayat had given a verbal nod to the project.
“Politicians then approached my father, warning him that the shed is an illegal construction and they asked for a bribe to settle the matter. My father ignored their interventions,” Sujith said, adding, “The AIYF then intensified its agitation against him and put up their flags on the land.”
Caught in a desperate situation, Sugathan approached several CPI leaders. “No one came to his aid and the local party leadership issued him an ultimatum that the structure be demolished by Friday (February 23).”
His father left home at 4am on Friday, telling Sujith that he was going to meet certain political leaders. He went straight to the shed and hanged himself, Sujith told The Lede.
According to Sujith, his father was a strong person who had never fallen into depression.
“I have seen him only as a fighter in my entire life. He was a loving and God-fearing person. But when he realised that it would be hard to set up a workshop against the will of the local party leaders, he was disturbed,” Sujith added.
Sugathan lived in the Villakudi Panchayat in the Kollam district.
Joseph C Mathew, a former adviser to the 2006-11 VS Achuthanandan-led Left Democratic Front government, said that political parties in Kerala know precisely how to deal with people, based on knowledge of their financial backgrounds.
“They know quite clearly how to deal with the rich and the poor. They will bend the rules for the rich. They won’t even think of crossing the lines set by the rich. But when it comes to small-time entrepreneurs or businessmen like Sugathan, they will flex their muscles,” Joseph said.
“The state Revenue Minister is a member of the AIYF’s parent party. If there is a violation, they should have dealt with it legally. Instead of that, they pressurised the poor NRI, which may have led him to take such a drastic step,” Joseph added.
This year in January, the Kerala government passed an Ordinance amending the Kerala Paddy Land and Wetland Conservation Act, 2008. The current Ordinance has more stringent provisions for the conservation of paddy fields and wetlands than before.
The construction of high-rise buildings even on land legally reclaimed for housing will be considered illegal. Extension of houses into land that has been converted from paddy fields is also prohibited.
Joseph told The Lede that there are many other big land grabs taking place in Kerala. However, he does not see the AIYF as enthused in ‘objecting’ to these, like they did in the Sugathan case.
Joseph alleged that the AIYF may have had a different game plan in mind, in not going the legal route. He was alluding to Sugathan’s son’s allegation that the local AIYF leadership had asked Sugathan for a bribe to settle the issue.
The Kollam district secretary of the Communist Party of India, N Anirudhan, said that the bribe allegations are baseless, and that the AIYF has acted democratically. “We have not threatened the family. We have talked only to the Panchayat officials. Also, we have adopted democratic modes of protest,” Anirudhan said.
According to Anirudhan, levelling a paddy field is a crime and the Panchayat had issued a ‘stop memo’. “But we heard that the Panchayat had given the family a verbal ‘yes’ to go ahead. We protested against that,” Anirudhan added.
Meanwhile, TN Bhadran, Secretary of Vilakkudy Grama Panchayat, told The Lede that they have not issued any stop memo. “My office has not issued any stop memo to Sugathan. If somebody has given verbal assurances for Sugathan, I cannot take responsibility for that,” the Panchayat secretary added.
When asked whether the same enthusiasm is being shown in the large land grabbing cases involving prominent or wealthy citizens, Anirudhan replied that the party has done their best in those matters, even if the strikes they had led had not made an impact.
The strikes led by the CPI on the ‘land grab’ issues in Munnar and other parts of the state, did not meet with any significant success.
Local Left Muscle
Meanwhile, recollecting an old cartoon published in a leading newspaper about a decade ago, Shajahan MK, a political observer in Kerala, commented that militant trade unionism has ruined the state. “The cartoon shows Left trade unionists asking for ‘Nokku Kooli’ while a corpse is being carried to a graveyard,” Shajahan said, highlighting how insidious the practice had become.
‘Nokku Kooli’ is a term used to define the practice where the owner can load or unload the goods himself, but money has to be paid to the trade unions for watching (therefore, literally ‘Nokku’) the movement of goods.
Shajahan added, “Communists claim that the practice of ‘Nokku Kooli’ is no more. But this claim is only on paper and not in practice. The situation has not changed.”
In the late 1980s and 1990s, the Left parties and their trade unions even protested against the introduction of computerisation in government and private sectors, claiming that this move would create unemployment.
Similarly, many factories were forced to move out of Kerala or shut down operations, reportedly due to ‘militant trade unionism’ and ‘Leftist ideology’ driven party strikes.
The Left has never been known for wealth generation in Kerala. It has not encouraged development, or industry. Technopark, the first of its kind in India, in Trivandrum, was incidentally nurtured and developed by the Congress-led UDF government.
Almost all iconic institutions in the state have been set up by non-Left governments, particularly by former chief ministers C Achutha Menon and K Karunakaran.
When Pinarayi Vijayan, who had spoken against the practice of ‘Nokku Kooli’ while he headed the Communist Party of India (Marxist) in 2008, batted for private investments after he assumed office as Chief Minister in May 2016, investors had hoped that he may tame the militant labour unions.
Though he was able to overcome resistance to his pro-capitalist agenda from the conservatives in his party, he has found the militant trade unions hard nuts to crack.
Meanwhile, a Keralite living in Oman said that many of them are afraid to return home. “The situation in the Gulf countries is very bad. The labour market nationalisation process is gaining momentum in every Gulf country. Reports say that very soon 17,000 migrants, majority of them Indians, will lose jobs due to this. We are stuck. We will have to return home. But the Sugathan incident is frightening us,” Vinod Lal Aryachalil, an official at the Oman Airports, told The Lede.
Thousands of Indians, especially Keralites, are returning to India because of the dip in oil prices, lack of jobs and the nationalisation of labour markets.Out of Kerala’s 30 million population, around 10% live overseas.
As migrants trickle in, activists say there are no proper re-integration and rehabilitation programmes in Kerala for them. “Like Sugathan, they all are left to struggle for survival,” Sister Lissy Joseph, a migrant rights activist, told The Lede.
Sister Lissy added that considering the current situation in the Gulf where Indians are being sent back or are being forced to return due to the condition of the economies, the state government should make policies to support them rather than strangulating them with stringent laws. “Even after 30 years of the movie ‘Varavelpu’, the situation has not changed,” rued Sister Lissy.
This January, the Kerala government had formed a 351-member platform named Loka Kerala Sabha, including non-resident Keralites, legislators and parliamentarians form the state, to make policies for the welfare of the Gulf migrants from the state.
Despite Rs 4.5 crore allocated for the Loka Kerala Sabha, migrants are disappointed that no fresh and concrete plans were put forward for the welfare of Gulf returnees at the event. Rs 19 crore has been set aside for the Loka Kerala Sabha next year.