Representative image | Photo: PTI
Kochi: The Kerala High Court on Monday declared demanding of 'nokkukooli' or gawking wages as an "illegal and unauthorized" activity which needs to be banned and directed the police to lodge cases of extortion against whoever makes such demands.
"I hereby declare that the demand of 'nokkukooli' in any form, manner, hue, by any person or trade union or registered worker is illegal and unconstitutional and is required to be banned without any reservation," Justice Devan Ramachandran said.
The high court directed the state government to carry out the necessary amendments to the Kerala Headload Workers Act in a time bound manner so that this industry is organized and regulated to some extent.
The state and the Headload Worker Welfare Board were also requested to devise a method to modernize the sector, impart training to the workers and equip them with the means to carry out their loading and unloading activity without any being caused to their body.
Justice Ramachandran further directed that the areas which are covered by the Headload Workers Scheme, employers, workers and the Board shall act in "strict conformity" with the guidelines mandating requisition of labourers, their wage structure and mode of payment.
The court said that compliance with these directions would "go a long way" in avoiding "deleterious tendencies" like 'nokkukooli' and will project the state as "investor friendly".
It also said that modernizing the sector as well as training and equipping the workers would help reduce the health problems, like heart conditions and work related physical injuries, they suffer from, the industry would become more organised and regulated and it would reduce the number of strikes and illegal demands.
"Time has come to modernize the industry," the court said and disposed of a petition by a hotel owner, represented by advocate Manoj Ramaswamy, seeking police protection to carry out his business without intervention from some persons who were allegedly demanding gawking wages.
While asking the state to modernize the sector, the court also suggested renaming the statute as the Loading and Unloading Workers Act.
Explaining the origins of the 'nokkukooli' concept in the state, the court said it was a "by-product of a well-intentioned legislation" -- the Kerala Headload Workers Act.
Justice Ramachandran said it was unclear how 'nokkukooli' "spread its tentacles in our small state", but it was "common and irrefutable knowledge" that it was being "practiced as a matter of entitlement by various trade unions".
The court said while the provisions of the Act were in place and operating satisfactorily to some extent, the advent of mechanised modes of loading and unloading and decrease in requirement of workers to carry out these activities gave rise to the concept of 'nokkukooli'.
It said that gawking wages were demanded by workers who could not be employed due to mechanisation of loading and unloading and subsequently, "it became a way of life".
The court said that despite a 2012 circular by then State Police Chief to take immediate action in incidents of 'nokkukooli' demand by force, "nothing changed at the ground level".
Subsequently, when complaints of 'nokkukooli' demands reached the high court, it intervened and issued several judgments forcing the government to issue an order in 2018 declaring demand of gawking wages as illegal.
However, despite intervention of the high court and the 2018 government order, "it was tragic" that nothing has changed even in 2021, the court added.
It also led to Kerala developing an "unsavoury reputation" of not being investor friendly, the court said.
Even as it declared demand of gawking wages as illegal, the court also expressed concern over the plight of the workers who carry loads of 55 kilograms or more on their heads for days and months in a year and therefore, suffer from various health issues, prominent among them being heart problems, spinal injuries as well as injuries caused due to falls in course of their work.
To prevent the health problems of workers and better equip them to do their work, the court said modernising the sector was the answer.
The court had earlier said that carrying heavy loads on the head or body by a person was a "dehumanising activity" and the statute -- Kerala Headload Workers Act -- which permits this was a relic of the past.