THE scale and intensity of the popular agitation for a fair price for tea is perhaps unprecedented in the history of the Nilgiris district. In June 1999, a meeting organised by all political parties, including the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), endorsed the suggestion that a minimum support price mechanism be put in place for tea growers. The following month, more than 50,000 people participated in a peasants and workers rally in Udhagamandalam, organised in suppor t of the workers of the ailing public sector unit, Hindustan Photo Films Ltd. They also demanded that a minimum price of Rs.15 a kg of green leaf be paid to tea growers. During the campaign for the 1999 Lok Sabha elections all the major political parties supported this demand. The joint action committee (JAC) emerged.
There was a lull in the agitation after the DMK and BJP constituents of the JAC persuaded the other members to hold negotiations with Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi and Union Commerce Minister Murasoli Maran for a favourable settlement of the problems. Th e JAC met the Chief Minister and the Commerce Minister, but nothing tangible came out of the discussions. On April 10, more than 1.5 lakh people - about 50,000 of them were women - including supporters of the DMK and the BJP, participated in a rally in U dhagamandalam. Subsequently, then convener of the JAC, J. Hutchi Gowda, met Finance Minister Yashwant Sinha and Murasoli Maran in Delhi.
N. Vasu, district secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), told Frontline that by then the situation had gotten so bad that "we could no longer offer any hope to the distressed growers".
In May, the agitation intensified, particularly in the Kotagiri area, with several buses being set on fire. On May 18 the police used excessive force to disperse a "half-clad" procession organised by growers.
Vasu alleged that 42 persons were arrested and youth were stripped, abused and beaten. The police's high-handed action, he said, alienated the youth from the political parties which began to be perceived as "too soft in their approach". He says imaginati ve solutions like distribution of tea through the Public Distribution System (PDS) would have prevented the prices from collapsing.
Seven young men of Kathadimattam near Udhagamandalam told Frontline that 500-odd people from the area were still in prison. Each of them displayed the injuries they suffered at the hands of the police at the rally in July.
Leaders of several Opposition parties said that the government's failure to respond in a sensitive manner to the plight of the small growers has blocked the tea growers' access to democratic avenues for a resolution of their grievances.
The immediate worry is that tensions - along a Badaga-non-Badaga divide - could result from the collapse of tea prices. The multi-ethnic nature of society in the Nilgiris, evolved over centuries, is unique to the State. The district has significant popul ations of Kannadigas and Malayalees apart from Badagas and other native tribal people. Although a substantial section of the tea growers belong to the Badaga community, in view of the tea industry's dominance of the district's economy almost all other se ctions have an interest in ensuring that the growers got a reasonable price for their produce. Any compression of incomes, employment and sources of livelihood can undermine peace in the hills.