Insidious web of bonded labour spreads to margins
— Photo: G. Moorthy EXPLOITED Lot: Women of Meenakshipatti near Kinnimangalam Panchayat in Madurai who returned to their village after working in spinning mills under the Sumangali scheme.
MADURAI: It is hard to find adolescent Dalit girls in Vadivelkarai, Keezhakuilkudi, Vadapalanji, Vellaiparaipatti and Meenakshipatti villages near Madurai. Most of them have left to work in spinning mills at Tirupur, Coimbatore, Dindigul and Theni.
The phenomenon, which started a few years ago, seems to be spreading fast. Appalling economic conditions, social discrimination and cash economy are the factors that have been forcing them to drop out of school and enter the web of bonded labour. Dalit girls are soft targets for agents.
A few villagers said they had to send their children to cities to escape caste discrimination and they used this opportunity to escape dependency and move beyond the confines of dominant castes. The weak economic platform provided by agricultural labour compounded by the seasonal nature of farm work has resulted in a hand-to-mouth existence for these families. With the ever-expanding lobby of agents, now the Valaiyar (also referred to as Mutharaiyars, a Most Backward Class) girls are being lured, as the community has a sociological profile of being hard workers.
R. Pitchai (60) of a Dalit colony in Meenakshipatti, Kinnimangalam panchayat, Tirumangalam taluk, has sent his daughter P. Jayarani to a mill in Erode. She could come here only once in the last two years. He had no choice but to send her there, in order to get her and other daughters married.
K. Alagu (23), who worked as a helper in a mill in Coimbatore in 2007, said she received Rs.45 as daily wage, out of which Rs.10 was taken for food. She was paid an increment of Rs.2 every three months. She was unwell during most of her stay at the mill. M. Pappathi (20), who had worked in a Coimbatore mill for one year, said she was not able to continue for three years as she fell sick whenever there were two shifts. One of the girls said agents got Rs.2,000 whenever they recruited a girl.
The ‘sumangali thittam’ of mills provides jobs to young, unmarried adolescent girls for three years. The promised salary starts at Rs.35 a day in the first six months, with an increment of Rs.2 every three or six months. In reality, the girls do not get paid anything more than Rs.30 per day; in many cases it is Rs.15.
T.V. Parvata Vardhini of Littles Trust, a non-governmental organisation, said many mills had the most exploitative conditions with a high level of extraction of labour. Psychological trauma, abusive language and sexual advances were common features. Common toilets under condition of water shortage resulted in urinary tract infection. Eyesight problems and asthma were other common ailments reported by the girls. However, a few girls who returned to their villages said the facilities were adequate in a few mills but there were no stipulated working hours. They had to work continuously under appalling conditions.
Ms. Parvata Vardhini said Arunthathiyar girls from Dalit colonies migrated in large numbers owing to multiple reasons. A major reason was the lack of government high and higher secondary schools in the area, which might at least check dropouts and encourage girls to continue their studies. Girls from Meenakshipatti had to travel as far as Mahaboobpalayam in the city as only private schools were here, which were unaffordable.