Friday, October 19, 2012

Erode child labour rescued - READ submitted memaroundam for children rehabilitation

Erode district 138 child labour rescued by Govt from spinning mills most are under 14 years girls and boys .READ visited the children and memorandum submitted to Erode Collector for children rehabilitation .

The District Collector
Erode District

Respected Sir,
Greetings from Rights education and development centre(READ)

Sub: Petition to file First Information Report (FIR) under Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, 1976 in the case of rescue of 138 bonded labourers including 44 children below the age of 14 years on 15th & 16th October 2012.
Ref: First Petition dated 16.10.2012 submitted in person to the District Collector at Erode. 

READ, is working for child rights, women rights, manual scavengers and the rights of Dalits .  It is working against exploitative child labour, camp coolie system and bonded labour. Our Textile and Garment industry is the second largest employment provider after agriculture in Tamilnadu. Despite industrial growth and growing employment for the poor, there are 200,000 girls working as bonded labourers under sumangali scheme (camp coolie system). Most of them are less than 18 years and many even less than 14 years. 

Tamil Nadu State Government has accepted the fact that girls are employed under camp coolie scheme in textile mills in its affidavit to Madras High Court on 14/2/2007.  The Judgment of the High Court of Madras on 30/04/2009 has recalled that India has ratified core ILO conventions and bound to accept ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work, which is an expression of commitment by governments, organizations of workers and employers, to uphold basic human values that are vital to social and economic lives. Recently, Union Cabinet Ministers meeting has cleared the proposal to prohibit the employment of all children below the age of 14 years in any industry. Employing a child under 14 for any work will be a cognizable offence punishable with imprisonment up to two years or a fine up to Rs 50,000 or both, an increase from the current one-year jail or Rs 20,000 punishment.  Restrict non-hazardous work to adolescents between the age of 14 and 18 years.
The child labour practices are found to be rampant in the textile mills in Erode district. It is evidently proved by the rescue of 138 bonded labourers in the age group of less than 18 years including 44 children below the age of 14 years on 15th & 16th October 2012. Parents of the children have taken advance, the children are kept in prison type accommodation, they are forced to work for 12 hours a day more 12 and they are provided poor quality of food and drinking water. All of them lived in a poor sanitary condition with just two toilets.  They are not permitted to communicate with their families and outside world. It is clear case of bonded labour.  

While we appreciate the efforts of District Administration to rescue the child labourers, we are also equally concerned about rehabilitation of rescued children. In this context, we demand the following: -
1. We kindly request you to file FIR under Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, 1976 and initiate action as per the offences and procedures of trial of the Act against the perpetuators of this heinous crime.
2. Please initiate a detailed enquiry against the mill to understand the bonded labour practices and to issue “Release Certificate” to the rescued children under Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, 1976.
3. We request you to file additional charges against the mill under the Child Labour (Regulation and Prohibition Act, 1986, Section 26 of the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection) of Children Act, 2000 as it deals with the exploitation of a Juvenile or Child Employee below 18 years and punishable with imprisonment for a term which may extend to three years and shall also be liable for fine. So that fine recovered from violators shall be used for the rehabilitation of bonded children with safe accommodation, education and skill trainings
4. Please order inspection of all relevant officials in all the textile mills located in Erode District

We hope that you will agree with our meaningful demands based on the rights enshrined in our Constitution, Labour laws, Orders of the Supreme Court, High Court of Madras and ILO core conventions ratified by our country. 

Thanking you

Yours sincerely


Sathyamangalam, Erode District
Mobile: +91 98420 90035

Saturday, September 29, 2012

READ Office Address change

Dear Friends

READ office is address change in New building at Same Sathyamangalam .

New address :

READ(Rights education and development centre)
MGR Nagar
Bannari Main Road
Erode .District

Tele.04295 -224313

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Memaroundam on manual scavening to NHRC

9th August 2012 ,National human rights commission (NHRC)  Conducted two days public hearing at Chennai ,Yesterday NHRC met civil society organizations ,We jointly demanded elimination of manual scavenging  and Act amendment .

READ given the memorandum on Erode district has 149 manual scavengers engaging the manual scavenging.4th April 2012 we given the complaint to Erode district collector and other municipality commissioners but till there is no response  .  Therefore on behalf of READ we given the memorandum to this issue .And also other issues

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Erode district level sumangali thittam conference

Rounded Rectangle: Erode district level Sumangali Thittam impact, sensitation  conference for local  body elected representatives
Date:14th August 2012  Venue: Corporation mandapam ,Near bus stand ,Erode
Time :10Am to 1Pm

Indian Scenario:
“The Indian textiles and garment industry India plays an important role in the global textiles and
garment industry. It is the second largest producer of textiles and garments and one of the few
countries that covers the whole value chain - from the production of cotton to the last stitches1.”
According to the Indian Ministry of Commerce, 51 per cent of the total textile exports in 2000-2001,
were from the garment sector alone. Nearly 80 per cent of Indian clothing exports go to the USA and the EU where they face quota restrictions. The Textile industry in India has several vast sectors within it, viz, the mill sector, the clothing or garment sector, the handloom sector and the power loom sector.Each of these sectors employs millions of workers and also contributes significantly to the national economy. The developed nations no longer produce goods that could be produced in so called developing and lesser developed nations through abundant of cheap labour. The easing of MFA (Multi Fiber Agreement) in recent years cleared all the decks for the second and third rung nations to become work houses/ garage/ shopping alleys for many of the activities of the developed nations.The garment sector, however, has emerged as the most globalized sector in the world today. This sector alone employs about 3.6 million workers. A large segment of the garment sector comprises of a vast domestic market, while another significant segment caters to the export market. Most of the units producing for exports are in Tirupur (Tamil Nadu), Delhi and Mumbai.

Tamil Nadu:
Within this context Tamil Nadu ranks high in its establishment of industries and factories which
is currently servicing the textile industry linked to retail stores across Europe and feeding into the
Indian economy. Textile Industry of Tamil Nadu is the forerunner in Industrial Development and in
providing massive employment in the State. It is predominantly Spinning-oriented. The State Textile
Industry has a significant presence in the National economy also. Out of 2049 large and medium
textile mills in India, 893 mills are located in Tamil Nadu. Similarly, out of 996 small units in India, 792 are located in Tamil Nadu. The 893 large and medium textile mills include 18 Cooperative Spinning Mills, 17 National Textile Corporation Mills and 23 Composite Mills. The spinning capacity is 14.75 million spindles2.The industries and factories are predominantly established in the Coimbatore, Dindigul,Erode, Tirupur, Theni and Viruthunagar Districts of Tamil Nadu. In these places the buzz word is industry-friendly.

Globalization encourages contractualisation and informalisation of production and economy
leading to severe exploitation of the workers. The textile and clothing industry is one of the worst
affected in this respect. In Tamil Nadu majority of the textile and garment workforce is women and
children. Among them women workers in Textile mills are about 65% mostly unskilled workers. The
age group of the workers is predominantly in the range of 14 to 21 years. There are child labourers
both girls and boys in the age group of 11 to 14 years and workers in the age group of 21 to 30 years are in fact a minority segment among the total workforce.

1 AEPC (Apparel Export Promotion Council) website, “Fact Sheet”.
2 Tamil Nadu State Statistics (2008-09)

Rounded Rectangle: Sumangali thittam situation in Erode District
Erode district is a semi industrial and semi agricultural area .This district has equal  Dalit population compare with other groups .Also our cotton textile mapping 353 spinning mills and garment units are there ,Near 30000 young girls are under sumangali thittam .Most of them above 60% are Dalit young girls .Erode district is source area as well as designation area .

Sumangali thittam situation in Erode District

Sumangali Thittam:
It is within this context Sumangali thittam was born.Called by different names—“Sumangali scheme,” “Mangalya Thittam”or “Subhamangala Thittam”— various cotton textile spinning mills under this contractual bind promised young girls that “if they worked for three years, they will get Rs 30,000 each at the end of the third year (besides wages3).” On the face of it, the scheme looks quite simple and attractive. Jobs are given to young, unmarried girls, mainly between 16 and 20 years of age, for a period of three years. On completion of three years, the girls are given ranging from 30,000 to Rs. 50,000 in bulk, especially for the purpose of their marriage. Poor parents send their daughters for these jobs, as a viable option for getting the girls married or for settlings old
loans. Dowry, still being the largest of problems in the country, the parents feels that by getting a lump sum under Sumangali Thittam, they would be able to give dowry at the time of their marriage. Many of these girls, from the poverty-stricken and remote villages of Tamil Nadu and Kerala and with no other alternative employment opportunities, fall prey to a new system of bondedness in the name of the Sumangali System in the textiles and garment units of Tamil Nadu. These girls are mostly
from the dalit caste groups, predominantly"
Arunthatiyar community is at the lowest in the caste hierarchy; their socio-economic condition is quite pathetic; this sometimes compels Arunthatiyars to send their children as coolies to different industries.This apart, these people fully rely upon certain local money lenders for getting money for which they in turn pay back more not only in terms of money but also in terms of laborious labour.

Push and Pull Factors: Sumangali thittam
The following factors are push and pull factors leading to the Sumangali System: poverty and illiteracy of the parents/family; tactics and mushrooming of brokers/brokerage agencies; dominance of age-old belief that for a girl marriage is the ultimate; parents of girl need to save for her marriage and dowry; low wages and undignified work at native village for poor and marginalised; less number of days of work (no regular work) in the villages; work in spinning mills and garment considered easy and decent (under a roof, no scorching sun, with accommodation and food facilities). Adolescent, unmarried young girls of 14 to 18 years of age are preferred in the textile and garment industry for their efficiency in work output. Also the employers are eager to recruit unmarried women in the age group of 18 to 25 years. They have no bonus and they are denied legally entitled EPF, ESI
or any other payment but they are promised an assured sum at the end of the scheme year, and are promised a lump sum at the time of their marriage. According to the AHRF study, only 30% of the girls had gone beyond eighth standard. Most were school dropouts which also show the massive need for guaranteeing education for these young children.

4 A Study to understand the situation of Arunthatiyar girls employed under the Sumangali Thittam Scheme in Coimbatore,Dindigul, Erode, Tirupur, and Viruthunagar Districts-Tamil Nadu (AHRF: 2009)
Study conducted by Arunthatiyar Human Rights Forum (2009) covered 250 girls from age group of 14-18 years to understand the impact of Sumangali thittam on young girls in Tamil Nadu. a)175 Girls who
previously worked in Sumangali thittam b) 50 Girls who were still working under the Sumangali thittam
c) 25 Girls who were willing to enrol under the Sumangali thittam.
Key Findings:
Nature of work involved long hours of standing (around 12 hours) and working with bare hands operating dangerous machines. Nearly all girl children were forced to work and faced verbal and physical abuse.
1/5th of the girls working were illiterate. 48% of the girls were enrolled into the scheme through the
agents residing in the area. 98% quoted ‘poverty’ as the reason for joining the Sumangali Scheme.
Nearly half of the girls had worked or had been working with an agreed amount of INR 30,000/- for a period of 3 years.
Sumangali thittam: Working conditions
The implementation of Sumangali Scheme in the textile industry has brought about so many changes in the style of its functioning. The working condition in the previous set up was meant for the adult workers, adhering to all legal procedures and conducive for increased productivity in the mill. The present context of the textile factory is implemented violating all Labour Welfare legislations and taking no measures towards safety, protection and security for workers. Since, the workers of Sumangali scheme worker is a child, not a member of any trade union hence there are no strikes or lockouts in the factory and factory keeps functioning as no complaint is raised against any violation of law or human rights or labour rights. "With girls, it is easy to keep discipline", says factory management, they would be less inclined to form unions than boys. By restricting the movement of workers, the company effectively prevents the girls from reaching trade unions. "Boys would never keep to that rule, they want to go on the streets,always wanting more freedom. Girls are simply happy with what you give them" explains factory management.5
Wages: A considerable amount is deducted from the workers' wages to pay for food and to save for
the dowry6. A large number of girls under the scheme had worked or had been working with an
agreed amount of Rs. 30,000/- after an agreement period of three years. The lump sum amount had
been revised year after year and about 4% of them were working for Rs. 50,000/- to be given after the agreement period of 3 years.7
Forced to work: In the AHRF study all children stated that they were forced to work. This is against the Forced Labour (ILO Convention) Act. The force reasons also are compulsions of the poor and marginalised families who have huge debts to pay off or are a large family to be able to survive on the meagre and erratic income of the adult members.
Abuse and violence: Majority reported on verbal abuse, shouting and verbal lashing by the
employers. Due to overwork and lack of sleep the workers become exhausted. There have been
many complaints of poor food quality. In March 2009, 24 girls working at the Sathyamangalam unit
were admitted to the hospital for food poisoning. Three girls later died.8 Most of these girls end up
working for long hours mostly around 12-14 hours a day. The time for lunch and dinner breaks is very short, mostly around 20-30 minutes and this being the only break which the girls get in the 12 hours shift. There is no break for rest during the day.
Health Hazards: Due to the harsh working and living conditions some of the workers don't make the three-year mark and leave the factory earlier due to health reasons. Lack of sleep and overwork lead to exhaustion of the young girls. In some cases the girls do not receive the money they have built up so far because they are forced to leave the work before the stipulated period. Because the workers don't receive an employment contract only an appointment letter - it is difficult to check, what exactly has been promised to them and to undertake action. According to the AHRF study, 61% of the girls had a stressful living environment thereby experiencing a psychological tension during their period of employment in textile industries. Further, 10% of the girl labourers had skin problems. More than 1/3rd of the girls had gynaecological issues and most were anaemic.
Food and Accommodation: The girls have migrated for work and are housed in dormitories located on the factory complex. Majority stay in the dormitories. Only a small percentage work in day shifts and return to their homes. According to the AHRF and the ECJ study, the Hostels are usually cramped and have poor ventilation and have poor hygiene. Each dormitory is shared by an average of 12-15 girls at a time and is reused by different girls after each shift. The walls of these factories are barricaded and it is impossible for anybody without permission to enter or exit this walled complex and 5 Trapped in Chains: Exploitative working conditions in European fashion retailers' supply chain (European Coalition for Corporate Justice: 2010) 6 Ibid 6
7 A Study to understand the situation of Arunthatiyar girls employed under the Sumangali Thittam Scheme in Coimbatore, Dindigul, Erode, Tirupur, and Viruthunagar Districts-Tamil Nadu (AHRF: 2009)
8 Tamil newspaper Kalai Kathir, reported on one of the deaths, Erode edition, 19 March, 2009
leave is restricted to a few days a year when the girls are allowed to visit their families. Workers are
thus severely restricted in their freedom of movement.

TPF(Tiruppur peoples forum)
It is collective network fighting for labours rights ,enviralmental rights and sumangali thittam issue
READ’s role:
READ is a committed grass roots organization in Sathyamangalam, Erode district, Tamil Nadu. It
focuses on the development of vulnerable children from Arundhathiyar community. The office is
located in Satyamangalam, Erode District, Tamil Nadu. Currently READ is working in 75 villages of
Satyamangalam Taluk with children of Arunthatiyars. It is a member of Arunthatiyar Human Right
Forum (AHRF) Tamil Nadu State level Advocacy Network. It participated in the 2009 study on
Sumangali thittam mentioned in this concept note.
Core Interventions:
· Prevent Arundhatiyar children in districts in Western Tamilnadu from entering bonded labour,
from being trafficked for labour, protect child workers from sexual violence and prevent
children from being forced into child marriages.
· Rescue children who are already in bonded labour or working in the textile industry, or are
being abused and discriminated within communities. Families and schools are protected, and
ensure the rate of children losing pare care in Western Tamil Nadu reduces.
· Establish strong institutions, organisations or networks of children and Arundhathiyar women
that will work towards the protection of their rights and entitlements.
Key Activities
· Rescue of children from textile industry factories and farms.
· Providing psychosocial care for the children rescued.
· Establishing activity centres in villages and developing supplementary education programmes
such as vocational training or special coaching for children at risk.
· School dropouts and children who are rescued from bonded labour are provided with intensive
coaching support in the bridge school (interim school between being rescued and going back into
mainstream school) and enrolled back in to the mainstream schools after the coaching at age
appropriate level.
· Forming Child Rights Protection Committees at village level in project locations to provide care,
protection and rescue/rehabilitation of children at risk of being or forced into bonded labour
system or being married at early ages.
· Empowering local self government (Panchayat leaders) to promote community based caring
systems for the children without parental care.
· Promoting and strengthening of Arundhathiyar women’s groups and federating them at block,
district and sub-regional level through facilitating capital formation amongst this vulnerable group
and enhance community ownership of the project
· Lobby and assist with local self govt. to create a community caring system at the Panchayat level
to rehabilitate orphaned or separated children
According to Mr. Karuppusamy Director, READ: “ the young girls under Sumangali thittam are living a
tragic life, they need to be rescued and guaranteed the right to education and lead a life free of
exploitation and abuse; the state must ensure their rehabilitation and ban the practice of Sumangali
thittam. The right to education act should be effectively implemented and monitored”.
Key Recommendations:
· The practice of Sumangali thittam and employment of children in the scheme should be
immediately banned.
· The child rights violations of girls under Sumangali thittam should be explored through a fact
finding committee.
· The employer exploiting children under this scheme should be punished in accordance with
Criminal Law and Prevention of Atrocities against SC/STs.
· The children aged below 14 years who are working as child labour in the textile industries
should be rescued and admitted in school as per the recently passed Right to Free and
Compulsory Education for Children.
· The Government has to strictly implement the labour related laws and rules of ILO convention
and UN child rights convention.
Jointly organized by READ& TPF

Special guest invited:
Ms.Maliga Paramasivam
Erode corporation Mayer

Erode district level panjayet president

Mr.PL.Sundaram .MLA
Bhavanisagar constituency

For details contact:
Mr. Karuppusamy
Director (READ –rights education and development centre)
Sathyamangalam, Erode
Tamil Nadu
Address: 27/1 Muniyappar Street
Pin Code: 638402
Erode District. Tamil Nadu,
Tele: 91-4295-224313
,Mobile: 91-9842090035

Thursday, July 26, 2012

14th August Erode dist level suamangali thittam conference

Dear Friends

READ will invite you for Erode dist level sumangali thittam conference at Erode .60% Dalit young girls are under sumangali thittam in Textiles and garments at Tamilnadu ,Erode,Tirupur and Coimbatore are major this part .

This is the marriage scheme .In the name of scheme ,There are many Dalit young girls are affected , Therefore we conduct the conference for Panjayet presidents at Erode bustand near ,mandapam on August 14th

We will invite to you



READ-Dalit women cooperative/Media training

Dear Friends

Vanakkam from READ!!!

22nd July 2012 we had our women cooperative training  at Sathyamangalam ,Meenachi mandapam .This cooperative society training discussed about objective,vision and current activity and also

During the training , we invited our selected students for their scholarship .

We given the scholarship .

I am  given web link on photos  students photos .
Just click the web link :

15th July 2012 we conducted media training our students .Because of now a days media spoiling the student life .

Thanking you


Monday, July 16, 2012

Midiya training for Scavengers children

READ conducted mediya training for scavengers (Dalit) children on 15th at Sathyamangalam ,Erode.dt,

30 children participated this training ,They are from different area .Mr.Joe documentary director given the training .Today 17th July 2012 ,Thikkadir daily news paper published the news

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Scholarship for Dalit students ......

READ gave scholarship for scavengers girl children for their education .

You can also change many lifes ...

Please give your hand for most marginalized children eduction ......

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Computer and Scholarship donation to READ

Greetings from READ!!!

READ mobalish the fund for our children children education ,Specially scholarship and Computer education

This Scholarship we selected 15 girls from scavengers family .This girls are 10th class to UG degree .

Those are from our target intervention area .Scholarship we moblish Rs.30000/ .This donation given by Dr.Raju Balakrishnan .He blogs to Arunthathiyar community .He is medical doctor .

Mr.Vasanth Raj Chairman & Managing director Wyvil Systems Inc ,India,USA&Canada .He given donation directly 5 new lap top ,each one Rs.35000 .Totaly :Rs.175000 .
He came our office on 16th ,he distributed directly.Also he given some assurance for youth employment .

Therefore i would like to share the photos link 

Lap top donation for Scavengers children computer education : Web link

Scholarship for scavengers 15 children :Web link

Thanking you
With regards


Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Caste Off.........

One day in 2007, a stranger came to JJ Nagar village in South India’s Tamil Nadu state, promising girls from the village a chance to change their lives. The man went from house to house offering to sign up any girl over 14 to a three-year term in a yarn factory. At the end of the period, the young women would earn bonuses of $800 (about a year’s salary), an almost unimaginable sum for a girl from JJ Nagar. The village is a six-hour drive from Coimbatore, the state’s second-largest city, but the prosperity of the new India and its almost double-digit growth rate hasn’t arrived here.

So when the agent came by Sivagami’s house, she and her friend Sathya made a snap decision to go. Sivagami was just 14, Sathya was 18, and they knew their parents would disapprove. “She just left without really discussing it with us,” her mother recalls. “She and Sathya both took off.” (Like many Indians, Sivagami has no last name.) For two days, no one in the village could locate the girls.

As it turns out, they were just about 12 kilometers away at a company called Saravana Polythreads. “Her father and I went and visited her,” her mother says. “She told us she didn’t want to study anymore, she wanted to work in the factory.”

JJ Nagar sits in the shadow of the stunning Western Ghats mountains, surrounded by coconut trees and lush rice paddies. No one in the village owns any of the surrounding fields, though. The best that most of the residents can hope for is a job picking crops, as both of Sivagami’s parents do. When there is work, they can earn the equivalent of $2.40 per day. The worst-case scenario is life as a manual scavenger, cleaning the latrines of members of the higher castes. People in JJ Nagar don’t have high expectations. They are members of the Arunthathiyar community, considered outcasts among outcasts.

The Hindu caste system is deeply codified. The Rigveda, a text that dates to between 1100 and 1700 B.C., establishes the varnas, a social order that explains that the four major caste groups are the sum of the parts of a man named Purusha, who sacrificed his body to create humanity. The Brahmans, the priests, were grafted from his head; Kshatriyas (kings, rulers, and warriors) from his hands; and the Vaishyas (traders and farmers) from his thighs. The Shudras, artisans and laborers, are banned from hearing certain religious texts. They are believed to have come from Purusha’s feet. Below the Shudras are Dalit communities like the Arunthathiyar, who don’t belong to any of the four varnas. In Mahatma Gandhi’s day, they were called untouchables. Gandhi attempted to popularize the term “children of god.”

These days, they are commonly called Dalits, which roughly translates from Hindi as “the broken people.” The Arunthathiyar are just one of many Dalit communities in India. Dalits are traditionally expected to perform unsavory tasks like disposing of dead bodies and cleaning bathrooms. Most live in abject poverty. The Musahar community of Bihar in Northern India, for example, has gained notoriety for eating rats to survive.

Dalits and tribals, a blanket term for indigenous people who live outside of mainstream Indian society and traditionally don’t practice Hinduism, comprise about a quarter of India’s almost 1.2 billion people. After India’s independence from England in 1947 and Gandhi’s subsequent movement for greater equality, they were granted reservations, spots in universities, and set-asides in employment in an attempt to correct historic discrimination. The practice is similar to affirmative action in the United States.

Despite the progress India has made, the legacy of caste remains its most intractable problem. Those at the bottom of the caste structure “are denied access to land, clean water, and education, left out by the recent modernization process and surge in economic growth, forced to work in degrading conditions, and routinely abused at the hands of the police and higher caste groups,” according to a recent statement from the organization Human Rights Watch.

In Tamil Nadu, a state that is perhaps India’s most economically forward—a leader in exports of cars, clothing, and electronics—there is also a way out. Dalits and other lower-caste communities of Sivagami’s generation form the core of the manufacturing labor force. In the state’s special economic zones, this has led to a burgeoning labor movement that has pushed back against multinational companies, like Foxconn and Nokia, that have a presence there. But for the most marginalized communities, who frequently work in the garment industry, exploitation is still too common.

For Sivagami, trading a life in the fields for a job in a factory should have been considered progress. In some ways it was. Sivagami made friends—girls from all over Tamil Nadu. For meals, they were mostly served idlis (rice and lentil dumplings) and dosas (long, thin crepes made from the same batter), two low-cost South Indian vegetarian staples. While it was the first time in Sivagami’s life she’d had three squares a day, the diet didn’t provide enough protein to keep pace with the workload.

Sivagami, now 19, is slight and shy. It’s early November 2011 when we meet in the hard-packed mud yard of the small brick-and-thatch home she shares with her family. She is dressed in a pink salwar kameez, the traditional tunic-and-pants set. She seems resigned.

The routine at Saravana Polythreads was grueling. Despite the state of Tamil Nadu mandating eight-hour workdays, there were just two shifts at the factory: a day shift from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. and a night shift from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m. Sivagami was placed on the day shift. Most of the time, she was tasked with spinning yarn onto a big paper coil. Sometimes, for a change of pace, she got to clean out the machinery. Sundays were her only day off. Lunch and dinner breaks were just 30 minutes long. The doors of the dormitory where they slept were locked from the outside at night. “When I felt tired, sometimes they would send me to my room,” Sivagami says. But “if you left the shift early to go back to your room they deducted money from the day’s wage.”

Life at the factory grew progressively worse. The girls were hired under a program called the sumangali scheme. In Tamil, the word sumangali refers to a single girl becoming a respectable woman through marriage. Agents peddle the scheme by dangling a payout large enough to cover a girl’s dowry or to buy enough gold to wear at her marriage. In September 2010, the Dutch newspaper de Volkskrant reported that girls were essentially locked in factories and working as bonded laborers. For clothing companies doing business in the garment clusters of Western Tamil Nadu, the fallout was massive. H&M canceled several contracts with local factories in response to the story.

Sivagami’s friend Sathya reached her limit halfway through their term. “It was really hard,” says Sathya, now 23. “I had to stand up 12 hours a day. I felt tired, my eyes were hurting, and my legs were hurting, so I left.”

One day in August 2010, Sivagami was cleaning fabric waste out of a machine. Unbeknownst to her, a coworker was still operating it. Her arm got caught and locked in the machine’s belt. “It took about an hour to take my arm out because they didn’t realize how to unwind the belt,” Sivagami says. She shattered her forearm, elbow bone, and part of her hand. She was in a cast for a month. A scar runs the length of her forearm.

The factory’s managers paid Sivagami’s medical bills, but the accident further complicated her relationship with her parents. “We’re not happy because she went to the factory instead of studying and now she injured her arm,” her mother says. Though Sivagami came back to work after six weeks, she had a lot of time to make up. Due to the injury and her frequent bouts of exhaustion, the factory informed her that if she hoped to receive her bonus, she’d have to work an extra year.

After four years at Saravana, Sivagami finally concluded her service on October 26. She received her payout, but the company neglected to put any money into her provident fund, the Indian government retirement plan for which they deducted money from every check. Sivagami says that the factory has made some small changes since her injury. “They used to have female workers taking out the waste without turning off the machine,” she says. “And now they are turning off the machine and they have the male workers to do the job.”

She is thinking about getting married and excited about the prospect of returning to work. “I want to go to a similar job but with modern machinery,” she says. “I am experienced.”
* * *
When Sathya walked out of Saravana Polythreads in 2009, she was aided by an Arunthathiyar NGO called READ (Rights, Education and Development Centre. Sathya later got a job at READ, where she met Veran, the man who is now her husband. Last summer, she left READ and had a baby girl.

Sathya is one of the luckier people in JJ Nagar. According to READ, there are still 146 people cleaning human excrement by hand. The stigma of this archaic practice extends to their children, who are often tasked with cleaning toilets at school, perpetuating the cycle.

In recent years, there has been a lot of progress for Dalits. There are now Dalit tycoons, chief ministers, and prominent academics. In states like Uttar Pradesh, Dalits and other marginalized groups like Muslims (many of whom are Dalits who converted from Hinduism) wield tremendous electoral power. Milind Kamble, a Dalit who runs a construction company in Maharashtra, has taken advantage of set-asides for Dalits to score lucrative infrastructure contracts. He also chairs the Dalit Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, whose motto is
“be job givers, instead of job seekers.”

Still, India is a long way from fulfilling the promises of equal protection under law enshrined in its constitution, which was written by B.R. Ambedkar, a Dalit with degrees from Columbia University and the London School of Economics. “In India there are two constitutions: the Indian Constitution, written by Ambedkar, and there is the unwritten constitution, the Hindu religion, their constitution,” says R. Karuppusamy, a 39-year-old Arunthathiyar man with a master’s degree in sociology who founded READ and has dedicated his life to empowering his community.

Every Sunday, Indian newspapers feature ads placed by parents looking to arrange their daughters’ marriages that explicitly state which caste they are willing to accept. The darker side of this obsession is the more than 5,000 honor killings every year, generally perpetrated by family members who are angry that a daughter has brought shame to a family by marrying a lower-caste man.

Having an honest conversation about caste is difficult when the system pervades all strata of Indian life. The discourse is further stifled by language. The language of government and the elite media is English, which most Indians can neither read nor speak.

Karuppusamy still sees only token gains in Indian society. He cites the lack of Dalit leadership in the leading Indian National Congress party and the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party. “Even the Communist party, the politburo, this buro, that buro. Where are the Dalit in that thing? We are 25 percent in India. They are using [us as] only a vote bank.”

Educating girls like Sathya and Sivagami, who are often the first in their families to attend school, is fraught with challenges. “Government schools don’t have a friendly approach,” Karuppusamy says. School is an uncomfortable topic for Sivagami. When asked about her decision to drop out at age 12, she demurs and giggles uncomfortably.

“I had troubles in school,” she says. “Even though I tried, I didn’t get it.”
* * *
READ’s offices are on a pleasant middle-class lane, just off a main road in a small city called Sathyamangalam. Karuppusamy was lucky to get the place. For a long time no one wanted to rent to a Dalit. After someone committed suicide in the building, the Brahman landlords felt that the structure was cursed. He got a good deal on rent, he tells me, laughing. Dalit activists, academics, and intellectuals take great pleasure in mocking Brahman superstitions, like the prohibition on eating meat.

On this day, Karuppusamy has convened a meeting of the Arunthathiyar Human Rights Forum, a coalition of activists from around Western Tamil Nadu. One of the activists, a small man from nearby Coimbatore, approaches me and introduces himself. He seems uncertain and diverts his gaze from me as we shake hands. The encounter encapsulates Karuppusamy’s biggest challenge: how to instill a sense of self-worth in a people who have been systematically dehumanized for millennia?

READ, with just four employees, has established alternative structures for empowerment. In its community banking program, a collective of Arunthathiyar women pool their savings in a single bank account. They earn interest, which is then made available for low-interest small-business loans or for emergencies. Through another program that rescues children from forced labor in agriculture, textiles, and local tea shops, READ provides them a year of remedial schooling before enrolling them in formal school. Karuppusamy is also campaigning to end manual scavenging. “India will be a superpower country, they are saying,” he tells me on the car ride from JJ Nagar to his office. “They have a 10-year plan, a five-year plan. But they do not stop manual scavenging. Why have they not stopped it?”

For many Dalits, though, there are far more immediate challenges, like where they will find their next meal. One of the reasons that Sathya was able to leave Saravana Polythreads while Sivagami was not, Karuppusamy says, it that there are three daughters in Sivagami’s family, adding pressure to earn money. “That is why she completed four years."

* * *
Sivagami finally got a new job. She is living at her parents’ home and working at a T-shirt factory in Tirupur, a little less than an hour’s drive away. “The bus comes every day to her village,” Karuppusamy reports. “She is happy. She is living.” She is, however, still looking for a husband.

Karuppusamy has also made some progress in his effort to end exploitation of Dalits in local clothing factories. He recently convened a meeting of NGOs, clothing factories, the companies they supply, and former sumangali workers. All sides agreed to work to end the sumangali scheme. They also pledged to stop employing girls less than 18 years old.
For Sivagami, this is good news. She doesn’t want other girls to suffer. “I think I was too young to work,” she says.