Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Oru "Dinesh" beediyundo sakhave? ( Got a "Dinesh" beedi on you, comrade?)

This post has been inspired by bvn who commented about those catalysts of leftist thought in Kerala, Dinesh beedi, kattanchaya (black tea) and parippuvada (a tasty sort of vada!! ) in my earlier post, Che Guevara in Kerala.

Sometime in the late 50s or early 60s, when the cold war was just heating up and all the world was making up their minds which side of the iron curtain they wanted to be, one small state on the southermost tip of India had decided where its heart lay; to the left.!!

The first democratically elected communist government in the world had just settled into the business of governing, when its cadres in Malabar, north Kerala, decided that the local beedi factories were exploiting their workers way too much. Peaceful demonstrations, threats of strike etc. were used to make the point that such exploitation would not be tolerated anymore, especially since the portals of power in Malluland had been captured by the proletariat.

The leading beedi manufacturer of Malabar, Mangalore Ganesh Beedi, refused to capitulate, like any good capitalist. Mangalore Ganesh explained to the striking proletariat in no uncertain terms that either the beedis had to be rolled, or they would shut shop and go. Obviously, the proletariat, in their revolutionary fervour, refused to roll a single beedi, and Mangalore Ganesh Beedi, true to its word, packed up and left.

The proletarian government was in a fix. Thousands of its loyal cadres had just been made jobless. The government had to quickly figure out a way to employ them, or lose any rights to the use of the proletarian trademark. This was the time when some clever soul decided that the answer would be Kerala Dinesh Beedi.

One of India's most successful workers' co-operatives was about to be setup. The government provided half the seed capital and the other half came from the workers, at Rs. 20 each. By the way, the Kerala government loaned each worker 19 out of those 20 Rupees.

Broadly, it appears that the workers' co-operative that was setup to run Kerala Dinesh Beedi did a good job of producing high quality beedis at a decent price, and the beedis sold, initially because of the proletarian image and later because the quality was good. More importantly, the workers at Kerala Dinesh Beedi got benefits like paid leave, pension, cheap loans etc and worked 8 hour days in humane conditions, yet managed to be cost competitive. Miraculously, the success story has continued till date and as I can vouch, Kerala Dinesh Beedi is one good smoke.

One worker gets a full day's wage to read newspapers aloud, from morning to evening, so that everyone else on the shopfloor can get the days news while rolling beedis. To me, this captures the essence of Kerala's literacy and sense of social equality.

While writing this, I referred to and borrowed from When a worker's cooperative works - The case of Kerala Dinesh Beedi, published in the UCLA review. Having some background of the politics of north Kerala, I feel the writers have been somewhat coy about the very strong nexus of Kerala Dinesh Beedi with the Communist Party of India (Marxist). As anybody decently clued into Kerala politics will realise, the political affiliations of the UCLA review article authors lie strongly left of centre. Perhaps for this reason, they project the succcess of Dinesh Beedi as a case of workers being inherently good and incorruptible. The government and political patronage aspect seems to have been played down.

Whatever the reasons are, the fact is that Kerala Dinesh Beedi is a successful workers' co-operative providing a decent livelihood to thousands, and that is reason enough to appreciate them.

- Avan


Anonymous b v n said...

thats some good history and you've penned it pretty well :)...Dinesh beedi is another one of the many successful co-op stories we have in kerala...yet another mallu pride

19 December, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

15 February, 2007  

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