ULCCS’s respect for the migrant worker stems from a sociocultural revolution in Kerala’s Malabar region

When Coronavirus struck, the manner in which India’s oldest construction cooperative treated its migrant workers stood in sharp contrast to the Indian government’s apathy. But the respect for the migrant worker at ULCCS should not surprise anyone who knows the story of its birth 95 years ago, writes Anil Varghese

Before Prime Minister Narendra announced the 21-day lockdown on 24 March springing a surprise on the daily-wage worker, who was now left with two choices – either to remain destitute in the city for that period or walk hundreds of kilometres to their homes – three buses had arrived in Malda, West Bengal with daily-wage labourers who had been working in Kerala. Their employer, Uralungal Labour Contract Cooperative Society (ULCCS), had booked the buses to take the labourers back to their homes. The COVID-19 cases were rising in Kerala and worksites were closing. That’s when a few of the 2500 ‘guest workers’ employed by ULCCS said they would like to return home. The trains were full, so the cooperative arranged the buses. The others stayed back in Kerala in the accommodation provided by ULCCS, which also provides them with free food. 

On 28 March, Kerala Finance Minister Thomas Isaac tweeted: “Pictures of exodus of migrant worker families trekking homeward is [sic] reminiscent of partition days. Compare it with the action of ULCCS, the largest construction coop, that transported them in [sic] special bus to Kolkata …” The minister has co-authored, with Michelle Williams, a book on ULCCS titled Building Alternatives: The Story of India’s Oldest Construction Workers’ Cooperative (Leftword, 2017).    

The ULCCS has always put the worker before profit since it came into existence 95 years ago in Karakkad, Vadakara (now Kozhikode district), in Kerala’s Malabar region. But that’s no surprise given that all but three of the first 14 members of the cooperative were labourers. All of them were Thiyyas, meaning “the bad people”. The upper castes, who were 15 per cent of the population in the Malabar region, owned more than 80 per cent of the land and the lower castes, the majority of whom were Thiyyas, who formed more than 70 per cent of the population, owned around 5 per cent of the land. Most of the landlords were Namboodiris (Brahmins).

The situation was ripe for exploitation. The conquest of Malabar by Tipu Sultan had brought a brief reprieve but the annexation of the Malabar to the Madras Presidency by the British made the exploiters even more ruthless. In their book, Thomas Isaac and Michelle Williams write: “The colonial administration in Malabar did not challenge the vicious caste domination of the Malabar region, but adopted a neutral stance to the denial of civil rights to the majority of people, justifying their position on the grounds that caste domination was intertwined with religious beliefs. In this way, colonial rule was superimposed on traditional social and economic relations.”

Women at work at a Basel Mission factory in the early 20th century

However, other efforts were made to free the masses from the clutches of caste. The Basel Mission, a Switzerland-based Calvinist Mission, set up textile factories in the mid-19th century and went on to employ thousands of workers. The factories introduced new technology, dyes and factory organization to the region. The mission also set up a network of primary schools, thus loosening the grip of caste on the masses. It was a few years before the mission set up its first primary school that Vayaleri Kunjikannan Gurukkal was born into a Thiyya family in the village of Patyam near Thalassery (now Kannur district). Gurukkal’s fiery oratory against caste, superstitions, idolatry and his emphasis on ‘Atmavidya’ (self-knowledge/consciousness) would inspire the founding of ‘Uralungal Koolivelakkarude Paraspara Sahaya Sangham’ or ULCCS in 1925.

Thiyyas are known as Ezhavas in southern Kerala, the former kingdom of Travancore. That is where Sri Narayana Guru, also an Ezhava, preached ‘One caste, one religion, one god for all’. Gurukkal, who became a Sanskrit scholar under the tutelage of his learned father, set up a Sanskrit school and for a long time remained the most powerful propagandist of Siva Yogi of the Brahmo Samaj, a pan-Indian Hindu social reform movement. Siva Yogi is said to have given him the title Vaghbhatananda. But by 1917, he had parted ways with Siva Yogi, distinguished himself from Sri Narayana Guru and started preaching Atmavidya. Isaac and Williams write: “A group of radical youth headed by Karappayil Kanaran Master invited Vaghbhatananda to deliver a lecture at Karakkad. A large gathering of people listened spellbound to Vaghbhatananda’s eloquent discourse ridiculing idol worship, rituals and outdated customs. Atmavidya Sangham – a forum for the study and propagation of atmavidya – was born in this meeting … The salutation of the new organization was a clarion call for struggle against caste injustice in the name of the creator: ‘Awake, remember the Creator, arise and fight for justice.” As Vaghbhatananda fought for the rights of the lower castes, he had the support of his wealthy, progressive Muslim friend Muthu Koyal Thangal.  

Vaghbhatananda (left); a tableau outside the ULCCS headquarters shows how labourers used the hand roller at road worksites decades ago

The members of the Atmavidya Sangham drew the ire of not only the upper castes but also the Thiyya elites, for the Sangham fought against not only caste discrimination and but also Thiyya superstitions. The Sangham members thus faced social and economic boycott. That led to the Sangham establishing their own school in 1922, a credit cooperative society (Aikya Nanaya Sangham) in 1924 and finally ULCCS in 1925. The first president of ULCCS was Chappayil Kunjyekku Gurukkal. A skilled mason, Gurukkal organized an inter-caste dining feast in Karakkad, inviting the outcaste communities to participate. Another founding member was Paleri Chandaman, the grandfather of the present ULCCS president Rameshan Paleri. He came from a well-off family in Karakkad. Isaac and Williams write: “He threw the idols from the family temple into the well, shocking the entire village. He also organized the daring procession of Thiyya women wearing blouses for the first time and the irreverent and innovative polluting of the temple and public ponds by bathing in them … Chandaman donated the land and basement of his own house to the cooperative to build an office.” Another founding member Kayyala Chekku dug a well for Dalits on his own land.    

Ninety-five years on, the revolutionary spirit of ULCCS remains intact. It is still the worker who once started as a sweeper, a stonecutter on the road worksite who goes on to become a member of the cooperative, then a director and then a chairman. The worker proves his competence over a period, becomes a member and then elects the board of directors from among the members. The board of directors takes all the decisions. 

The state government’s preference for cooperatives while handing out contracts for construction projects has helped the ULCCS’s cause. Over the years, ULCCS has also earned the reputation of doing quality work and meeting deadlines. It has acquired machinery and employed engineers and bagged contracts for building roads, flyovers and bridges. There have been new challenges though. The new generation of the Karakkad area are educated and understandably don’t want to work as labourers. In fact, the shortage of labour is a problem that the entire state of Kerala has been facing for a while now, and like in the rest of Kerala, ULCCS worksites have been employing migrant labour. More recently, membership of the cooperative has been opened to migrant labourers, too. The migrant labourers, or “guest workers” as they are known at ULCCS, thus also participate in the electing of the board of directors and are also entitled to all the other financial benefits that the members receive, such as ownership of shares, provident fund and interest-free loans. Both members and non-members are entitled to medical insurance and bonuses.

The UL Cyberpark and and ULCCS workers who built it

According to the Economic Times, ULCCS now employs more than 12000 people and its revenue in 2018-19 touched 1100 crore. It had 2969 members and around 4500 migrant labourers. About 30 per cent of the workers are women and more than 70 per cent of the local and migrant labourers are Thiyyas (local labour only), other OBCs, SCs and STs.

Now, in view of the aspirations of the new generation, ULCCS has diversified its operations. In 2011, it launched an IT company, called UL Technology Solutions (ULTS) in Thiruvananthapuram and later embarked on the building of a cyberpark, in Kozhikode. The UL Cyberpark now houses the office of ULTS.

On April 14, Prime Minister Narendra Modi extended the lockdown until 3 May. As he announced the extension, he seemed as oblivious to the plight of the migrant workers as he was 21 days earlier. Migrant workers have been dropping dead on the highways as they undertake long treks back to their homes. On 18 April, a tribal girl, Jamalo Madkam, only 12 years old, died after walking more than a hundred kilometres over three days from a chilli farm in Telangana, where she worked. When she died, she was only 11 kilometres away from her home in Aded, in Chhattisgarh’s Bijapur district. As the history of ULCCS shows us, the prerequisite for a feeling of fraternity in this nation, in which the leaders are sensitive to the plight of the often-Dalitbalitbahujan, migrant worker, is a sociocultural revolution and transformation. Nothing else will do.    

(Editing: Ivan)

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