Thousands of teenaged girls are exploited for labour in the textile mills of Tamil Nadu
“Earn Rs.40,000. Work as an apprentice for three years,” said the bold print in Tamil on the colour pamphlet. This was “a unique opportunity for young women”, it said. There were other attractions mentioned: “We also give tasty food and comfortable accommodation in the hostel. Daily stipend Rs.50.” Lakshmi, 15, who hails from Kambam in Theni district, did not want to miss this opportunity. It would mean the end of drudgery for her family of agricultural labourers; the “modern facilities” and “kulu kulu vasadhi” (air-conditioning) were a bonus.
The agent advertising job opportunities in a Tirupur-based textile mill found one more potential recruit in Lakshmi. He showed her the pamphlet and suggested that the amount she would get after three years could take care of her marriage expenses. Lakshmi and her parents were convinced, and she set out to Tirupur. The three-year-period ended recently, but Lakshmi is yet to get the promised amount. And with every passing day she is losing hope.
In at least 17 districts in Tamil Nadu thousands of teenage girls have been lured by agents to work in private textile mills, which are estimated to number over 1,600, under what they call the “sumangali” scheme.
Kuppusamy Andal is 84 and can no longer recollect the heady days of the Second World War when she and her husband dug trenches and hid in them while the Japanese hurled bombs targeting their house.
A native of Sivakasi, she migrated with her husband to Singapore soon after marriage in 1940. Along with thousands of other migrant Indians, the couple were caught in the crossfire when Japan occupied the country. In a bombing incident, they lost their first child Balakrishnan. In 1943, the couple joined the Indian National Army and fought the British for Indian independence, under the leadership of Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose. Ms. Andal was a member of the INA’s Rani of Jhansi regiment. As a prisoner of war in the Bidadari camp, they suffered several atrocities at the hands of the British.
But, age has withered her memory. The freedom fighter now languishes in a tiny one-room apartment in Kolathur in north Chennai with her only son Sivadas. Mr. Sivadas narrated to this reporter the life of his parents, pieced together from the anecdotes he had heard from them. “There was a time when my father contributed $100 to the Indian Independence Movement Fund. Today, we need a government pension to make ends meet,” he said.
Fortune eluded the family after Kuppusamy returned to his birth place, Puliangudi in Tirunelveli district, in 1947. He died in 1981 without any recognition whatsoever for his role in the freedom struggle, Mr. Sivadas said.
In 1985 Ms. Andal was certified as a “genuine freedom fighter” by the All India INA Committee in Delhi. The oath she took as a member of the Azad Hind Sangh’s Syonan Shakh remains a testimony to this. In 1986, almost 10 years after Kuppusamy and Ms. Andal applied for the State government-sponsored freedom fighter’s pension, she received a call for interview from the screening committee at the Tirunelveli Collectorate. She was found eligible and has been receiving a State government pension since then.
However, 23 years have passed since she first applied for the Central government-sponsored Swatantrata Sainik Samman Pension, which has not been cleared yet.
(Originally published in The Hindu, From the South page, dated July 16, 2008)
The last time Vishnu Tavudu went to the polling booth was 26 years ago. He vividly recalls the days when Telugu Desam leader N.T. Rama Rao held sway over the people in his village on the Andhra Pradesh-Orissa border.
This 86-year-old has not cast his vote since, as his family took up construction work in various cities for survival.
He is one among several thousand migrant labourers living in makeshift camps along Chennai’s famed IT Expressway, who are most likely to be left out of the electoral process.
“Even if we want to go back home and vote, getting leave is difficult,” says Sharath Kumar, a migrant from Kendrapara district in Orissa. An ardent supporter of the Biju Janata Dal, he says he cannot afford a train journey now. “It takes Rs.1,000 to go on a trip to my town and come back. It takes me five days of toiling in the sun to earn it back,” he says.
The recent clash between groups of students at the Dr.Ambedkar Government Law College has brought campus politics under a shadow of disapproval. Facts that have emerged thus far reveal that caste-based political mobilisation was taking place inside the campus for a long time.
Ahead of the Thevar Jayanthi celebrations on October 30, students belonging to the Mukkulathor Student’s Forum, youth wing of the Thevar Peravai, had put up posters inside the campus to publicise the event. That they had omitted ‘Dr.Ambedkar’ from the name of the college in the posters is said to have angered Dalit students and triggered the clash on November 12.
However, such violence stemming from politics on campus is not new and the institution has remained a hotbed of political activity for several years now. In 2002, similar violence involving students occurred in the Law College hostel and a commission of inquiry, led by retired Madras High Court judge K. S. Bakthavatsalam was appointed by the State government. Back then, the police action in response to student violence had come under criticism.
Kantamma is up for work every morning before the sun. She treads barefoot the 12-km distance from home to her workplace, geared with a plastic sack and a long pointed metal rod. She stops on her way at every street corner, rummaging the piles of garbage for something worthwhile.
The woman is a rag picker at the Perungudi dumping yard. Like most of her workmates, she picks waste all the way to the yard. “There is enough garbage on the streets and the stuff I pick up would end up there anyway,” she says.
Rag pickers know it is easier to deal with garbage in small amounts than in mountainous piles. They segregate waste wherever they find it and sell them, reducing the load of waste reaching the yard. Once in the yard, the garbage is all mixed up and segregating them is a tough job.
The 60-year-old Kantamma, for one, only picks up plastic and paper. She says her vision is failing and she can no longer venture deep into the dump. But nonetheless she visits the yard as the plastic scrap dealer in Perungudi is familiar. He helps her with credit in times of need.
In the city, there are thousands of men, women and children who pick waste from streets or dumping yards or both. It is an informal trade and the more they pick the better they earn.
They know how to put waste to use. At a rag picker’s colony in Indira Nagar, Adyar, nearly everything they use is made out of scrap collected from the streets. When construction was on at the Tidel Park, some of them said they found some broken tiles near the site with which they patched up the floors of their dwelling units.
Unfortunately, most rag pickers are bonded to the scrap dealer to whom they regularly sell. Marimuthu (12) is one such rag picker in the Kodungaiyur dumping yard. The boy migrated from Athipattu with his parents a few years ago. They get an advance of Rs.1,000 from a nearby scrap-dealer and sell him whatever they manage to lay their hands on. Munusamy, who initiated the family into the trade, says, “The dump yard is our home, the waste is bread and butter.”
He points to a little boy who is scraping the charred surface of the yard. His mother had set heaps of discarded wires on fire a while ago. The boy was pulling out thin strings of copper from it. “How much will it fetch,” Munusamy asks. The boy replies with a smile, “I am sure I’ll get Rs. 15.”
Munusamy says, in Kodungaiyur, rag pickers fight among each other for metal scrap like dogs over a piece of meat. He picks up a medicine bottle, removes the rim at its neck and says, “This is aluminium … fetches Rs.90 a kg.”
In Kodungaiyur, he says rag pickers have managed to pull out gold ornaments and silverwares sometimes. “You never know when someone would get lucky,” he says, but slowly adds: “But everything depends on the scrap dealer giving a good price. Once, a girl found a fat gold chain and the dealer only paid her Rs.5,000. Someone told me that he later made a fortune out of it.”
But rag pickers like him, who turn rag into riches for others, themselves remain poor.
(Originally published in The Hindu, Chennai edition, dated Jun 01, 2008)