Fear of Fresh Protests Weighs on Seasonal Workers at Sabarimala
For many of these contract workers -- all of whom are men -- the 2018 Supreme Court verdict is “unacceptable”.
It's the first day of the three-month-long Sabarimala season. However, the buses en route to Pamba are scarcely filled. "Most Kerala devotees would visit the temple in the first few weeks. The real rush of devotees would be from other states, which begins only towards the end of the season,” says 67-year-old Dinesh, who has been contracted by the Travancore Devaswom Board (TDB) to pack the sweet kuzhi paniyarams, locally known as unniappam.
"Most devotees come to watch the Makaravilakku, but last year there were far lesser devotees than normal. There were fewer sales for the unniappam. I hope more people come this time and the sale picks up," says the man who disagrees with the 2018 SC verdict lifting the ban on the entry of women of menstruating age into the temple. He isn’t the only one.
How the Protests Impacted Jobs
When Dinesh is not a temporary employee with the TDB, he works as a daily wage labourer. For the next 40 days, however, he will be camping at Sabarimala. Some time past 11:40 pm, he finds a bus to Pamba from where he walks to the Sabarimala Sannidhanam. Most of his co-passengers are also daily wage labourers during most of the year, who take up contract work for a few months when the Sabarimala season begins.
For many of these contract workers -- all of whom are men -- the 2018 Supreme Court verdict is “unacceptable”. They blame the protests that started in November and continued well into January this year for impacting their job prospects and turning away devotees last season.
The 5-judge bench hearing the review petitions in the case had recently transferred it to a 7-judge bench to be reheard. Many on the ground have interpreted this as a move which could eventually roll back the 2018 judgment. The Kerala government’s stand on Friday, that a woman devotee would require a court order for state protection, is also being viewed by the contract workers as a welcome step to prevent women from making a trip to Sabarimala.
Binu, a daily wage labourer who has also worked in the Gulf says-
“The decision by the Kerala government that a woman must get an SC order for police protection is a good one. How many women will go to SC in Delhi for an order? How many can afford it? So, there won’t be any protests like last year,”
He has been finding work at the stalls catering to pooja items and gets paid Rs 30,000 a month.
Despite his certainty that women won’t come to the temple this year, the uncertainty of more protests erupting if women do come, and him losing his income source concerns Binu. "The SC verdict has affected business. When the sales are good, the stall owner gives a bonus. But this season, the stall owner has just taken two stalls in the auction. The year before the SC verdict, he had taken seven stalls. Last year, the protests took place right before our stalls and the owner suffered huge losses. We didn’t get a bonus either,” he rues.
For several years, Sonu has been taking up work at a tea stall in Pamba for three months during the season. "I come here for three months as the food, lodging and even the tea is taken care of by the hotel owner. It helps me save money," says Sonu, who aspires to own a tea shop of his own some day.
However, the hotel owner didn’t renew the contract last year after the September 2018 verdict, compelling Sonu to continue with construction work. “This year, the hotel owner renewed his contract again, so I hope to save some money,” he says.
Lack of Preparedness
There is unease in the air at Pamba. It is 2 am and the police are stationed in pairs every 200 meters. It begins to rain but none of them move from their designated positions; they just open their umbrellas.
The officers will complete their four-hour shifts before another pair of officers replaces them. The Kerala police have deployed 2,555 police officers on bandobast duty at Sabarimala for the next two weeks. In the weeks leading up to the devotees’ rush during the end of the season, they will increase vigil with additional deployment.
Two officers take a seat at a tea shop at the end of their four-hour bandobast duty, one of whom was present during the protest last year. "I hope there are no issues this time, don't want to get caught up in the stone pelting," he jests.
A colleague of Sonu’s, Randeep, who works at the tea stall, joins in with a complaint,
“Unlike the previous year, nothing is ready here this time. The people are going to pour in and there are not even enough toilets yet. They (TDB) just brought the urinals today. People working at the hotel have to go to the jungle to relieve themselves. The TDB has enough and more money but they haven’t spent anything fearing the protests.”
Speaking to TNM, a Sabirama devotee, Satish Kumar, en route to Erumely, opined, “There should be gender equality; and there is also no problem if women enter the temple. What's the big deal? They are just going to come to the temple and pray just like anyone else. But making this a political issue and just to show off feminism is unacceptable. It is an insult to those who fast, and are real devotees. There is a lot of sentiment attached to the whole ritual.”
“I have been coming to Sabarimala for seven years now. I asked my wife if she wanted to join me, and she said she will wait till she reaches the right age; it’s her choice,” he says. Satish will be walking from Erumely to Pamba and then to Sabarimala cutting through thick forest and battling leeches as part of the ritual. “Things will change, but it will take time. Trying to force it will make people oppose it,” he adds.
The Sabarimala season begins on November 16 and ends on January 21.
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