While visiting Kerala, Southwestern part of India, no one should miss Kerala’s spectacular Backwaters that in the past were used as rice plantations, but today became a tourist attraction showing, both natural beauty and the sustainable way human can utilize the natural environment with respect to the nature. The Backwaters are also witnesses to the multiple transformations through which Kerala has gone in the past decades – from colonialism through socialism, to… tourism which plays an important role in the local economy today. And, tremendously affects the Backwaters and their inhabitants.
In such places like The Backwaters that became a point of interest to the tourists from all over the world and the place of establishment of vast resorts; the model of relative equality that has been created since 1957, (the first elections in the world won by the Socialists), is under the thread. Tourism made here a new model, much more similar to the feudal/colonial past, than desired by the Socialists and workers equality – the model of exploitations that silently takes place behind the high walls of resorts. Here tourism affects almost every sphere of people’s life.
Resorts, founded by the foreign capital or the capital of those who emigrated from Kerala to the Middle East (1/6 of Keralites has done so), are being ruled as Greek polis – they are countries within themselves, except that there is no place for democracy there, and that the strata of ‘quasi-slaves’ is very developed there, existing next to the strata of their masters, and unaware of anything tourists. Once the worker of a resort crosses the gates, has to obey any demand of his ‘master’ who often does not obey any workers’ conduct, including restricted time of work. It is very sad that those places with plasma TVs, fitness centers, and swimming pools—five star quality—have a common trait: the exploitation of workers that on the scale reaches ‘negative’ five stars margin.
This new order is very difficult to accept especially to inhabitants of Kerala, who since 1957 have embraced the workers unions and strive for the respect for everyone. This achievement is being dismantled nowadays, by the management of resorts, who prefer not to see the unions on their background. Those who do not accept the new order of things or humiliation – have to leave, some begin to resist…
I had a chance to witness such resistance by driving on the streets close to resorts. Honestly, for the first time when I passed the strikers I thought they are a bunch of men wanting to make money by selling socialist flags with its easily distinguishable hammer and sickle. However, when I stopped to talk to them it turned out that they are workers on the strike, who insist on staying on that place few meters from the gate of the resort where they used to work. There were about 10 to 15 men there, trying to voice grievances and argue for their rights in heat hovering around of 30 degrees Celsius or about 86 degrees Fahrenheit. They have been there since May 2nd. They said that if this would not help, there will be other unionists coming from the regional office; if this will not help… there will be more serious protests; I am afraid that this might involve violence—these men are desperate. Their postulates are not sophisticated in regards to what someone who watches them may think – they do not want higher wages! They only demand respect; respect that was refused to them and their colleagues behind the resort’s gates.
The resort in which they used to work has five stars standard - not in every aspect as we see in regards to the treatment of the workers. The resort is funded by capital that is in India located in Bangalore, but in fact comes from the Middle East the workers say. This company has also its branches in the United Kingdom. Moreover, the chapter in Kumarakom was named among the best in India.
As I thought about this situation, it occurred to be the “double movement” of resistance towards the free market system described by Karl Polanyi in his Great Transformation (1954), and was shown in action on the streets in Kumarakom. Unfortunately, without recognition of the local media or the resort’s management that was the subject of the protest, the former workers were isolated and their rights ignored, or so it seems. The only acknowledgment was made by the local police that appeared after approximately 10 minutes of our talk with the former workers, going back and forth on the street, where they have their camp. However, based on other talks with the locals there is a lot of sympathy towards the protesters there, but not everyone one protests; there are some workers who chose to remain in bad working conditions to not lose their income. Yet those we met trusted that our presence and our awareness can bring some change.
Such resorts are a real ‘ticking bomb’ for Kerala’s environment – they are ready to build their hotels and spas even in the most precious ecologically vulnerable places such as the Lake Vembanad that in the past years has became a victim of tourists who cruise on so called ‘housing boats’. A criticism of this atrocity against nature is countered with points of view about employment – what would all the people of Kumarakom do if the resorts will not be there? It is further emphasized that given the reality that Kerala does not let much foreign direct investment to come in, most likely the only fate for them would be to immigrate to some Middle Eastern or Western country and send money back to their families in Kerala. We observed this pattern well while staying in Kerala where the new houses being built by Kerala workers who are not in the region. We can only guess the actual numbers of workers from Kerala and their conditions in other lands…, but what we know for sure is that working conditions of Kumarakom’s resorts have to change. After all this is a tourists’ choice to not support the place that does not support human rights.