Thiruvananthapuram: Rajeswari S Pillai, a consultant with a Mumbai-based logistics company, was transporting heavy equipment to the Vikram Sarabhai Space Research Centre (VSSC), took 10 days to cover 70 kms from Kollam and Thumba, on the outskirts of Kerala’s capital Thiruvananthapuram. Almost every day, she walked six to 10 kilometers with the consignment-laden truck with 80 wheels moving at a snail’s pace. People waited along the national highway for the arrival of the giant truck, and the Police and district authorities did their best to ensure a smooth arrival. However, a dramatic twist awaited her at the finishing point, where a group of people lied on the road asking for help unloading the heavy cargo. Nokku Koolie refers to the money charged by trade union workers for work performed by machines or by others on their behalf.
Despite her pleas that only cranes heavy enough to lift the cargo can unload it, they claimed they would not mind as long as gawking charges were imposed. A total of 10 lakhs was initially requested, but later it was reduced to 5 lakhs. She stood her ground, however. After three hours, the blockade was finally lifted after the chief minister’s office intervened and some protesters were arrested. There were 50 people booked later. ‘I oppose paying people who do not work. I’m done explaining the incident. But I hope it is the last incident of its kind in my beautiful state,’ she said.
While hearing another case related to Nokku Kooli last week, the high court cited this incident and asked the government to explain new measures taken to end the menace. ‘This practice was banned years ago, but it continues today. It brings a bad name to the state. The complaints keep coming in. The government should take strict action against those who demand it,’ the HC said last week and asked for a detailed report from the state police chief within two weeks.
The left-wing government banned Nokku Koolie in 2018, but the practice persists in many parts of the state. In 2002, a law- Kerala Loading and Unloading (Regulation of Wages and Restriction of Unlawful Practices) was enacted to restrict this unholy practice, but it continued until today.High court rulings in 2017 forced the state government to ban the practice in 2018, but the problem is far from resolved. A lot of judgments against organized crime of fleecing were handed out, but the police and government authorities often did nothing about it, which eventually led to the death of the state’s industries. Police act against workers when they complain against them, but many remain mute for fear of retaliation by militant union workers.
Fed up, the government is planning to strengthen the ban on Nokku Kooli. One senior official who declined to be identified said that the government is considering implementing strict provisions, including provisions that would not be subject to bail. Though most trade unions acknowledge that such worn-out practices invite bad name, they discreetly support them. K N Nair, who was building a house on the outskirts of Thiruvananthapuram, brought marbles and other material from north India, and workers wanted ?25,000 to unload it. Having refused, he was threatened and finally called the police. While the police settled the issue, some local leaders told him that antagonizing head-load workers would invite their wrath, forcing him to pay them Rs 8000 for work done by others. ‘I was afraid they might destroy the unloaded material in the night,’ he said.
In the state, around 300,000 workers who are registered under various unions are resting on the roadsides. Besides these registered workers, others operate to con people out of money. Automobiles carrying goods are frequently spotted in industrial areas and residential colonies. Usually, they charge exorbitant fees for doing the work or demand payment for merely watching the goods being unloaded by cranes or in-house workers.
Only 11 major cases have been filed with the labour department since the ban came into effect in 2018, but industrialists and others insisted it is only the tip of the iceberg, and many complaints are being withdrawn. According to them, the illegal practice enjoyed political patronage, and militant workers got away with it. Despite the fact that there were units of the Kerala Head Load Workers Welfare Board and labor offices in every district to deal with such issues, builders and industrialists feared retaliation.
The practice of gawking charges is unhealthy and invites bad publicity. Worker problems should be addressed if they exist. Under the condition of anonymity, a spokesman for the Confederation of Indian Industry said there should be a proper mechanism for enforcing labour laws at the grassroots. State leaders never match their words with their deeds. Despite publicly disowning such elements, they secretly support them. Kitex group MD Sabu Verghese believes these leaders are responsible for turning the state into a graveyard of industries. The group moved to Telangana recently, alleging a witch hunt in Kerala.
Leaders of trade unions oppose the practice but say isolated incidents are being used in concert to portray workers in a bad light and dent the state’s image. ‘We oppose it. We have taken strong action against erring individuals, but some vested interests depict isolated incidents to paint a bleak picture,’ said CITU (Centre of Indian Trade Union) state president Anathalavattom Anandan. A local priest led by local residents called for jobs for natives to block the equipment-laden truck at Thumba, Anandan said, with the blame conveniently placed on workers in the area. The priest was not available for his comments. Locals said the head-load workers were there and provoked locals to join the upset and, when it became a big issue, they backtracked.