Gomati Augustine and the Pombilai Urimai Movement

by Maya Pramod

Gomati Akka and Tea Estate Workers of Munnar, Art by Fathima Ismail

The Munnar region that borders the states of Kerala and Tamil Nadu has been home to tea plantations since the 1880s when the British first began developing these lands to generate tea revenue. Since that time, labour for the plantations has come mostly from Tamil Dalit migrants.

Gomati Akka or Gomati sister as she is popularly known, was born into a Dalit family who migrated to Munnar from Tamil Nadu. Today, almost four generations of their family have worked these estates.

Gomati, at a very young age too, became a plantation worker. As she worked, she began to understand more and more how workers were being exploited. Most folks were being paid extremely low wages. They had to live in houses and quarters that were completely dilapidated, many not even renovated since the time the British initially built them. Women workers reported widespread sexual abuse at the hands of supervisors and managers.

“We are Tamils,” says Gomati, “But we were born and raised here for four generations. We elect the people’s representatives. Yet we have no land, no home. No one understands that this is the condition of the plantation workers. The people here are enslaved for the company.”

Tea plantations on the hill slopes of Munnar, Wikimedia Commons, 10 October 2016, Author Mousumipriya

Many of the workers were already organized through trade union movements but Gomati and other women felt like more needed to be done. In September 2015, they formed Pombilai Urimai (Women’s Rights Group) and led the Pombilai Urimai Worker’s Strike — a 9-day, 5000 women-led protest demanding an increase in wage, bonus and better working and living conditions. They protested against K.D.H. P or Kannan Devan Hills Plantation Company.

In organizing this action, they were also going against their own trade unions by sidestepping the male leadership. During the time of the strike, women workers called the shots, they definitively led these protests and even kept their men away from their homes to assert their leadership. Finally, the strike was called off after discussions between Pombilai Urimai, the plantation owners, the Chief Minister and Labour Minister of that time.

A 30% bonus and a pay rise for workers was negotiated. The daily wage for workers, which was INR 268 (USD. 3.68), was increased to INR 301 (USD 5.28) following the Pombilai Urimai strike in 2015.

Despite the outward success of the strike, it is important to remember that there were many complexities in the way events played out. There were internal conflicts all throughout the struggle period. There was suspicion among the workers and allegations that their trade unions were also colluding with the management. There were also feelings of casteism and perceptions that the caste and gender experiences of certain members were not respected or acknowledged in the struggle. This provoked the women into their own action.

This separation in the struggle caused angry trade union leaders and the political counterparts in the ruling Communist Party of India — Marxist (CPIM) to threaten and attack Pombilai Urimai leaders like Gomati. Even today, relationships between the labour unions and the workers remains fraught, exposing serious fractures and shortcomings in the political Left’s approach to organising Dalit workers.

South Poll | Kerala | In conversation with Gomathi Augustine of the Pembilai Orumai |Credit: SHOWSHA

Unfortunately, there were also serious differences within Pombilai Uiumai itself, which eventually split into two groups, each led by Gomati and her friend, Lizzie. When leaders of Pombilai Urimai ran for elections, for example in 2019, the winners are immediately swept up by political parties, further shattering the movement into factions. The reality is that this movement continues to navigate various complexities.

Through it all though, Gomati, and her group have continued to represent Pombilai Urimai and are trying to shape it as both an anti-caste and anti-corporation workers’ movement. For example, economic improvement is not the only item on their agenda, Pombilai Urimai also challenges negative caste and racial stereotyping by working to end the derogatory usage of slurs like “Pandi” on people who are Tamil and Dalit.

In 2020, three members, Gomati, Vellathai and Mariyamma stood as candidates and won the in the Devikulam block panchayat elections to become representatives.

For people like Gomati and her sisters, several identities are barriers — gender, caste, and even their ethnic affiliation of being Tamils in Kerala. As they fight on, we wish them all strength, power and unity.

Maya Pramod is a writer, editor and research scholar working in anti-caste spaces and with alternative magazines in Kerala. Her interests are on issues of Dalit and Adivasi women.

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Dalit History Month

Redefining the History of the Subcontinent through a Dalit lens. Participatory Community History Project