Antagonism towards migrant workers keeps Kodagu on edge as politicos fail to balance interests of locals and coffee industry

Antagonism towards 'outsiders' employed in Kodagu's coffee plantations has been around for decades, lately, the narrative is focussed on workers from the north, including Jharkhand, Odisha, and Assam and other northeastern states

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Madikeri: Kodagu’s many coffee plantations employ thousands of migrant labourers who have been an integral part of the district’s coffee economy for over half a century now. The difference today is that while earlier the bulk of the labourers came from Tamil Nadu and Kerala, now they come from Jharkhand, Odisha and Assam and other northeastern states, fuelling a strong local versus outsiders debate in the district. This has become more vocal since the rape and murder of a local Dalit girl in February which led to protests by local residents demanding that the migrants be sent back.

Kodagu accounts for 30 percent of the country’s total coffee production of 3.5 lakh tonnes. Coffee plantations are labour intensive, particularly during the November-March coffee picking season, which sees estate owners scrambling to get labourers for various activities like digging coffee pits, shade lapping of trees, coffee picking, pulping, drying, etc.

The rape of a minor girl by migrant workers has further fuelled anti-migrant sentiments in Kodagu. Subramani Siddapur

The confession of rape and murder of a minor Dalit girl in February by workers from West Bengal has further fuelled anti-migrant sentiments in Kodagu. Subramani Siddapur

Around 50-60 years back, the migrant labourers from Tamil Nadu and Kerala and were housed in line houses provided by estate owners. Following the implementation of various housing schemes by the state and as a growing economy created other income opportunities, workers built their own homes in small towns and became economically empowered, some ending up owning estates themselves. The adivasi workers, who were trapped in bonded labour, started to assert their rights. Many second generation labourers had moved to bigger cities like Bengaluru and Mangaluru, which led to a labour shortage in Kodagu’s mainstay coffee industry.

Then labour contractors first started bringing in workers from north Karnataka districts to make up the shortage. But that too dried up in the  early 2000s with these labourers preferring to work on construction sites in the cities. Contractors then started bringing in labour from north and northeastern states, often with tea estate experience, who live in the same houses vacated by the Tamil and Kerala migrants.

In this social milieu, antagonism towards "outsiders" has persisted throughout the district’s migration history, to various degrees. In the 80s, social strife between locals and labourers stemmed from the influx of Muslims from Kerala, which led to locals fearing they would change the demographics of this "Hindu kingdom" which had fought Tipu Sultan and his attempts at conversion. This narrative was given impetus by the local BJP unit, even as a growing number of migrants were accused of encroaching Devarakadu's, or protected forests, dedicated to local village deities.

This xenophobic-narrative is now focussed on this new wave of workers from the north. Local residents allege that many of them are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and include even Rohingya Muslims, and that crime is on the rise because of them.

On 4 February, a minor Dalit girl in Siddapur went missing and her decomposed body was discovered ten days later. During police interrogation, two men from West Bengal confessed to raping and strangling her after she rejected their advances.

It was at this time that the Kodagu district police asked plantation owners to furnish details of workers hailing from the northeastern states, expediting the process that was initiated during the 2018 floods and landslides in Kodagu to take stock of the migrants and arrange to send them home if the estates they were working in had been damaged. Kodagu Superintendent of Police Suman D Pannekar said that this registry "is needed to prevent crimes and keep a watch on migrants as they do not stay in one place permanently".

This horrific rape and murder incident came just after the murder of a coffee trader and another of an Assamese labourer, giving anti-immigrant sentiment a boost in the district. This incident evoked strong protests in many parts of the district. Perhaps for the first time, the violent nature of the crime, saw local labour groups and organisations coming together to demand that the ‘Hindi-speaking’ migrants be sent back to their native states. The protests were supported by Congress, BJP, CPM and SDPI workers. Following this, there were reported incidents of attacks on and intimidation of migrants in the district and even a brief exodus of workers.

Some labour leaders objected to condemning the entire migrant labour force because of crimes committed by a few of them.

"We should not curtail their right to work which is guaranteed by the Constitution,” said CITU district unit general secretary ND Muthappan, though he would not get into the issue of illegal immigrants.

Another union leader and district gram panchayat workers association president PR Bharat too wanted to steer clear of the legal status of these migrants. Condemning the attack on migrants, he stressed that employers — and not just coffee estates because migrants can be seen working across all sectors in Kodagu — are also answerable.

"According to my estimate, there are about 30-40 thousand migrants working in Kodagu district. And across all sectors, in all types of jobs," he says, ading, "They are no longer just seen in coffee estates. Even people who are loading cement today are Assamese. Instead of paying them 6-7 Rs per sack (that the locals would charge), they (the migrant workers) are only paid Rs 3. Why? Because they are in a situation where they are pushed to work for less, unlike for example, the Kodagu Adivasis," says Bharat.

Often forced into hard labour for low wages, Bharat informs, the Adivasis slowly became more aware of their rights and started demanding better wages. "They were able to get out of their debt traps in the estates. It is to replace them that workers from Assam and other states are being brought in," he adds.

Bharat admits that there certainly is some resentment among locals that migrants are taking their jobs away. But the responsibility for this also lies with the owners, he says. As long as there are people ready to take advantage of those who are desperate, they will continue to come.

But even coffee growers associations, whose members were staring at a labour shortage, also came out to condemn the attacks. Migrants from the north overwhelmingly make up the labour base in these estates, edging out the amalgamation of 'locals', particularly Adivasis, who are less willing to work for below minimum wage. There are outliers, however.

Machchamada Anish Madappa who owns a 15-acre coffee estate in T Shettigeri in Virajpet taluk is strongly opposed to employing migrant labourers. He says that north Indian workers were “creating problems” in the estates.

"Two months back a calf went missing from my house and was recovered from the backyard of migrant worker in a neighbouring estate," said Madappa, adding, "When I questioned the estate owner, he warned him that the next time this happens his workers will kill and eat the calf."

Madappa says local estate owners use migrants for their selfish motives, as these labourers are paid less than workers from nearby villages.

The BJP’s voice in Kodagu is the same as it has been in Assam, West Bengal, and every other place where the bogey of illegal migration can be raised.

District BJP president BB Bharatish claims that most of the “north Indian migrants” labourers are Bangladeshis.

“These illegal immigrants cross the border into West Bengal and stay there for few months. Later they would get their fake Aadhaar card made through agents. And then they move towards the southern states,” he claims.

Coffee plantations have been hiring migrant workers from Jharkhand, Odisha, Assam and several other northeastern states. 101Reporters

Majority of the workers in Kodagu's coffee plantations come from Jharkhand, Odisha, and Assam and other northeastern states. 101Reporters

Bharatish said that while the migrant labourers may work for low salaries in the beginning, after a few months they “start to demand equal salaries”.

"More of a concern is that they are involved in criminal activities. Many migrants have been accused in the cases reported over the last three years. The government should conduct a thorough verification of all migrants," he said, claiming that he had learnt that a few migrants possessed voter IDs from here and that he would oppose it.

The migrant labourers are not a vote bank, especially in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, as they are not registered voters in Kodagu, nor do they often go back home to vote.

Bharatish's Congresss counterpart KK Manjunath Kumar said that a few migrants may be involved in criminal activities but they are all Indian citizens.

"Also according to the Election Commission norms, citizens who stay for more than six months in one place are entitled to get their voter ID transferred there and exercise their franchise," says Kumar.

Mangalore-based labour contractor, Jayanth Shetty says that he and other contractors from Mysuru, Nanjangud, and Chamarajanagar have clear instructions from labour officials to check identities of the workers before employing them. Shetty and his counterpart from Mysuru, Chennappa Gowda, say that together they gather nearly 7,000 labourers just for Kodagu.

One batch of labourers this reporter met with were mainly from Odisha and Jharkhand.

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"We come here in search of jobs and there is plenty for everyone," a leader of the labourer group Ranjit Kalhamala said, adding, "We are happy about the payments, the coffee planters treat us well, and as some of us who are skilled in Assam’s tea plantations are hired on priority."

But organisations like the Codava National Council, which has launched a movement for the rights of the Kodavas (natives of Kodagu), insist that many labourers are illegal migrants.

"They do not speak Hindi or any Indian language," claims NU Nachappa Codava, president of the Council.

Social activist and advocate Katnamane Vital Gowda alleged that workers often come with "fake" voter ID and Aadhaar cards. “Even Bangladeshi nationals have voter IDs of Assam and West Bengal,” claims Gowda.

Terming the migrants "anti-social elements", the Kodava leader also claims that they pose danger for homes located inside estates. To back his claim, he points at two robbery incidents reported last year in which migrant workers were the accused.

Gowda also alleged that political party workers were providing migrants with local voter ID cards to get votes in the hustings. “Two years back, many migrant workers got Aadhar cards by paying just Rs 200. Later those behind the Aadhaar enrolment franchise in Sakleshpur were arrested."

The author is a Madikeri-based freelance writer and a member of 101Reporters


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