Caught in a Weave



Frontline
Volume 24 – Issue 20 :: Oct. 06-19, 2007
INDIA’S NATIONAL MAGAZINE
from the publishers of THE HINDU
Contents

LABOUR ISSUES

Caught in a weave

VIDYA VENKAT

Thousands of teenage girls in Tamil Nadu, lured by textile mills with promises of good money, are exploited for labour and return empty-handed.

K. ANANTHAN


At the weaving unit of a mill near Pollachi. A file picture

“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. “Now they [mill management] say they can give only Rs.25,000,” she told Frontline.

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. It is an emotional trigger associated with a happy married life. However, at the end of the day, many of the girls have returned to their poverty-stricken lives. The practice began about 10 years ago, with agents recruiting unskilled girls from villages to work as apprentices in mills across the State. Mills took advantage of the “apprenticeship” provision of the Model Standing Orders under the Tamil Nadu Industrial Employment (Standing Orders) Rules, 1947, and used it to popularise the “sumangali scheme” among poor families with teenage daughters. Mills enjoy complete autonomy in adopting the scheme in their own way once the Joint Commissioner of Labour has certified their separate standing orders.

Now, in virtually every segment of cotton textile production, from spinning yarn to tailoring garments, it is “apprentices” who do all the work. Trade unions say that in many of the leading mills up to 70 per cent of the workers are apprentices recruited under this “scheme”.

The girls join the mills after signing a three-year bond that promises a lump-sum amount at the end of the period. While the offers vary from mill to mill, the lump-sum amount ranges from Rs.20,000 to Rs.50,000. Usually, the lump-sum is linked to the stipend; the higher the lump-sum, the lower the stipend.

The girls live in hostels on the mill premises. They are paid a daily stipend ranging from Rs.25 to Rs.80. A “nominal” amount is deducted from the stipend towards food expenses. The mills also offer “incentives”, such as a hike in the stipend, to “hardworking” girls.

K. ANANTHAN

Workers return after a shift at a mill near Coimbatore. A file picture.

The working conditions of the girls are now under the scrutiny of the State government. In June 2007, the Tamil Nadu Labour and Employment Department issued an order directing the Collectors in 17 districts, including Coimbatore, Dindigul, Erode, Karur, Sivaganga and Madurai, to investigate the conditions in which the apprentices work. They were asked to set up a monitoring committee for the purpose in each district, to be headed by the Collector and with the Deputy Commissioner of Labour, the Factories Inspector and the Revenue Divisional Officer as other members. But no time frame has been set for the committees to submit their reports.

The Tamil Nadu Joint Action Council (JAC) of Textile Trade Unions pointed out that the labour enforcement authorities had failed to contain the abuse of the apprenticeship scheme and the monitoring committees were only a perfunctory response to their demands.

Court orders inspection

A petition filed in the Madras High Court by the Dindigul District Anna Panchalai Thozhilalar Sangam and the State Anna Panchalai Thozhilalar Sangam, Chennai, stated that 406 textile mills in Coimbatore, Dindigul and Erode employed 38,461 unmarried girls in the age group of 15-22 without adhering to provisions in legislation on labour welfare. On October 3, hearing this petition, a High Court Bench comprising Chief Justice A.P. Shah and Justice P. Jyothimani asked the Tamil Nadu State Legal Services Authority (TNSLSA) to form committees, including a representative each of a women’s organisation and the TNSLSA, to conduct surprise inspections in textile mills in 17 districts in the State. It also appointed advocate R. Vaigai as amicus curiae.

The government set up the monitoring committees following protests by trade unions that the mills exploited the girls by extracting forced labour, denying statutory benefits and restricting their freedom by confining them to the mills. They also expressed concern about sexual harassment.

In textile hubs such as Coimbatore, one came across girls using their nimble fingers to tug at threads turning rapidly on spindles. In the export garment factories of Tirupur, girls were seated in long rows, stitching clothes on machines or just checking garments. They were also employed in garment packing, cone winding, weaving and such other operations.

The JAC argued that these jobs were semi-skilled or unskilled and did not require more than six months of training. “They are engaged in production work just like ordinary workers. So, why call them apprentices and deny them the rights of workers?” JAC leaders ask. Since the Model Industrial Standing Order does not spell out what proportion of the workforce can be apprentices, the mills employ more apprentices than regular workers now.

One impact of the apprenticeship practice has been the weakening of trade unionism. (Apprentices cannot join a trade union.) P.M. Kumar, member of the JAC and State-level leader of the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU), said that in the last few years textile mills had retrenched a large number of permanent workers through “coerced” voluntary retirement schemes. This drained the industry of experienced workers. Later, when the demand for labour grew, the mills appointed apprentices.

In Vedasandur, a region in Dindigul district with a large number of spinning mills, violation of labour rights is common. K.R. Ganeshan, Dindigul district secretary of the CITU, pointed out that of the 160-odd cotton mills in Dindigul only 56 had any union. The practice of employing adolescents and even children as apprentices was rampant in the region, he alleged.

He said that “mill owners functioned like feudal lords” here and workers were completely at their mercy. The mills relied on casual labourers and apprentices for all their production work but denied them essential facilities such as Employees State Insurance (ESI) and Provident Fund (PF). Several cases of accidents were hushed up by paying paltry amounts as compensation, he alleged.

In fact, one comes across temples built by mill managements in Vedasandur, which, Ganeshan says, are “ways to buy people’s loyalty, a vestige of feudalism”. He said the temples convinced people of the mill owners’ “nobility”, thus pushing them into a state of “subjugation”.

Southern India Mills Association (SIMA) secretary-general K. Selvaraju denied the charge that apprentices were an exploited lot. Instead, he claimed that the mills were “promoting women’s welfare” through the scheme. Responding to a query on the non-payment of the promised lump-sum amount, he said it was “only an ex-gratia and must not be considered mandatory”. The promise, obviously, has no legal sanctity and this creates the possibility of the guidelines being interpreted differently.

Selvaraju said the scheme had “curtailed union interference in the textile industry to a large extent”. Besides, he felt that it helped girls from needy families. He said many mills had arranged for distance education and computer education facilities for apprentices. So, they enjoyed a “college-like atmosphere”. But he was not sure if all apprentices enjoyed these benefits.

Daughters in the mill

At a textile mill on Avanashi Road, Tirupur, Frontline came across parents waiting anxiously to meet their daughters. Squatting under the asbestos-roofed shed meant to be the “visitor’s room”, they spoke of the problems concerning their children. “We hardly get to see them,” said Ganesh, a farm labourer from Udumalapet. “My daughter fell ill and they gave her some pill, that’s all,” he said.

When his daughter arrived he pointed to the dark circles under her eyes and the deep cuts in her fingers. His daughter said casually that the cuts were common for girls working in the spinning department. “We get used to it,” she said. But her father would not be consoled. “What if she loses her hand in an accident?” asked another visitor waiting to see his daughter.

Many girls in this mill had left their jobs midway as they could not cope with the workload. The mill now has 300 apprentices. The girls often do 12-hour shifts and stay up late at night to compensate for the labour shortage. Standing for long hours near the droning machines caused ear pain and headache, a girl said. “But we get used to all that,” she added. Vijaya, 16, said that if she left now she would not get the lump-sum amount. She needed the money so that her two younger sisters could continue their studies. “Another six months to go and then I will be free to leave this place,” she said.

BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

The pamphlet of a mill, which was distributed in Tirupur.

Many girls said they would not return to the mill after completing their apprenticeship. They said the mill preferred to recruit afresh after the girls finished their term. Several apprentices here did not have a copy of the ‘agreement’. As this reporter was about to leave, Vijaya said she was thinking of excuses to give to the security guard standing a few feet away. “He will definitely question me on why I was speaking to you,” she said. Her father told Frontline that Vijaya discouraged him from visiting her too often for fear that the management may deny her her pay on some pretext or other.

In fact, the Coimbatore district monitoring committee’s report, details of which are available withFrontline, says that there have been incidents where girls have been denied pay. The report mentions the cases that have been registered against 22 mills in the district on charges of forced overtime and other violations of labour rights. However, the report states that these are “stray cases” and that the scheme was “found to be operating well within the law”. It suggests that the apprenticeship period be brought down to one year to curb the mills’ temptation to replace permanent workers with apprentices.

Speaking to Frontline, Coimbatore District Collector Neeraj Mittal said that while there were mills that treated their apprentices well, there were also others that “extract their pound of flesh”. Informed sources said the Dindigul district monitoring committee’s report had also given a clean chit to the apprenticeship practice. Dindigul District Collector R. Vasuki told Frontline that she has not received “any formal complaints” against the scheme.

“A Rapid Assessment Study of Marriage Assistance Scheme in Textile Sector in Tamil Nadu” conducted jointly by the CITU and the International Labour Organisation (ILO) in March 2007 shows that most adolescent girls working under the scheme come from families with incomes below Rs.2,000 a month. The study also notes that most of the girls are from agricultural households and need additional income to sustain their families.

The link between distress and migration of young girls was discernible from the large number of school dropouts flocking to the mills. In Nagamalai near Madurai, girls from Dalit colonies routinely migrated to textile mills in the Palani and Dharapuram areas where the stipend was as low as Rs.15 a day. These girls came from families of sanitary workers or agricultural labourers.

Alarmed by the high dropout rate among girls in government schools in Nagamalai, T.V. Parvata Vardhini of Littles Trust, a non-governmental organisation (NGO), visited several villages in the region. She said most of the girls were taken to mills by agents who were mostly jobless young men with contacts in mills or relatives of girls employed in mills. She said that upgrading government primary schools in the area into high schools might encourage girls to continue their studies because private schools were expensive.

An industry source said school dropouts were just the right kind of “human resource” textile companies wished to “utilise”. Informed sources also said that agents carried out major recruitment drives in villages during school holidays after the tenth and twelfth standard board examinations. In some cases, the mills were known to approach the village headman to refer potential recruits, they said.

G. KARTHIKEYAN

Marghadam of Thottanampatti in Dindigul district shows the receipt for the Deepavali bonus she is supposed to have received last year. The mill dismissed her six months before her contract ended and did not pay her the money.

In places like Vedasandur, the girls recruited from neighbouring villages were brought to the mills in vans. Anandan, a textile mill worker at Aalampatti village in Vedasandur, said several mills including his own were now “bringing girls from outside” and keeping them inside mill hostels. Though daily-wage workers are no better, he felt that girls working under the scheme were badly exploited. For instance, when a girl falls ill, she is not given a paid holiday. They are not covered under ESI schemes; instead the mills engage a nurse to dispense quick-fix medicines. They are paid Rs.30 a day and there are no means to bargain for more. “Avan kudukarathu thaan sambalam” (what he gives is the salary), he said.

In Thottanampatti village near Vedasandur, this reporter met Marghadam, who had worked as an apprentice in a nearby mill. She showed a receipt, according to which the mill paid her Rs.1,156 as Deepavali bonus last year. But that was only on paper. Since she got married six months before the contract period ended, she was summarily dismissed. “I showed them the receipts but they did not give me the money,” she said. She had joined the mill drawn by the offer of Rs.25,000 as lump-sum. But she received no more than the daily stipend of Rs.50, which was used up in servicing her family’s debt.

For the industry, apprentices are a source of cost-cutting. Selvaraju made no bones about the cost-cutting drive throughout the textile industry. To run the business more “efficiently” mills could replace their entire workforce with apprentices, he said.

Export boom

This also explains why the industry is resisting the government’s attempts to bring textile workers under the Minimum Wages Act. In the wake of the post-liberalisation export boom in the Tirupur industrial cluster, cotton textile production received tremendous impetus in Tamil Nadu.

While Tirupur exported Rs.2,255 crore worth of cotton knitwear and garments in 1996-97, in 2006-07 the value of exports rose nearly fivefold, to Rs.11,000 crore. Overall, 25 per cent of the State’s cotton yarn production accounts for direct exports. The rest mostly undergo value addition in the Tirupur industrial cluster.

Several new mills or new units of established textile groups mushroomed in places like Dindigul, Karur, Erode and so on during this growth phase. It is along the supply chain of such export businesses that the “sumangali” scheme has become widespread. With the dismantling of the Multi Fibre Agreement under the World Trade Organisation (WTO) in 2005 the potential for export has improved and low labour cost gives the industry “a comparative advantage”.

K. ANANTHAN

Two of the four girls who escaped from a textile mill near Coimbatore in January 2006. One of them speaks to her father in Nagapattinam, where the girls hail from, on a cellphone provided by Child Line, a non-governmental organisation, in Coimbatore.

Latest international labour cost comparisons give a better picture of the “race to the bottom”. A study report on international labour cost comparisons in primary textiles by Werner International, global consultants for textiles, apparel and fashion, shows that the average labour cost in India, at $0.69 an operator an hour, is among the lowest in the world. The only countries where labour is cheaper are Bangladesh, Pakistan and Vietnam.

P.M. Kumar, JAC member, said the unions wanted nothing short of an abolition of the apprenticeship system. On a sarcastic note, he said mill owners who were talking of women’s welfare today had retrenched all women workers in the early 1990s as they did not want to be bothered by the welfare measures stipulated under the Factories Act. “The mills,” he noted, “are employing girls now for their own welfare.”

(The names of some persons have been changed to protect their identity.)

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Fight against corruption has to come from below

arasuHis latest effort has been to start an Academy of Honest Politicians in the city along with the Tamil Nadu Lanjam Kodathor Iyakkam . Having spent much of his retired life fighting corruption to make life easier for the lay man, S.M. Arasu of the Anti-Corruption Movement told Vidya Venkat that a proactive citizenry and a firm leadership could help erase this menace from society.

“My first tryst with corruption was in 1963, when a public works contractor slipped in a few hundred rupee notes inside a diary as a gesture of gratitude for awarding a contract. Though I have resisted attempts to bribe me all through my days of employment, I took to anti-corruption activism fulltime post-retirement,” says Mr. Arasu, who was formerly chief engineer of the Tamil Nadu Public Works Department.

Denying that government officers come out into the open about corruption in public office only after retirement, he says, a number of serving IPS officers and government functionaries from other departments are members of the movement now. “In fact, our association’s by-laws encourage public officials to join us,” he says.

Started in 2001, today the movement has 4,500 members all over the State. “Many of them are students. We have four to five branches in the State and also bring out a monthly journal named Nermai Neri,” he says. Quoting a study report brought out by Transparency International last year, he says Tamil Nadu figures among the most corrupt States in India. The study says the police, revenue and regional transport offices are among the most corrupt departments in the State.

“In any building or road repair project, up to 50-60 per cent of the project cost is siphoned off by contractors and lower-level officials,” he says. He says most local bodies such as municipalities are corrupt and utilise only half of the allotted money for project work.

While the Right to Information Act has empowered activists like him to question the authorities when a public project is incomplete or taxpayer’s money is squandered, he says most Public Information Officers are not adequately trained to handle queries under the RTI Act. Due to unsatisfactory responses or delays in sending replies, he says a number of cases are pending with the State Information Commission.

However, he credits the Directorate of Vigilance and Anti-Corruption for trapping several bribe takers whenever a representation is made. But he says, this is not enough and that the leadership, at the end of the day, must show its resolve to fight corruption.

“When leaders at the top are firm about eradicating corruption, the system will become clean and efficient,” he stresses.

For, corruption is a practice that percolates from top. The fight, however, he says has to be waged from below.

(Originally published in The Hindu, Tamil Nadu edition, dated Sep 13, 2009)

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From a warrior’s withered memory

kuppusamyKuppusamy 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 at 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 Jul 16, 2008)

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The case of the disenfranchised

migrantsThe 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.

Postal ballot

More than two lakh migrant workers have been found living in the city and its suburbs in a survey recently carried out by the Unorganised Workers Federation. “Most of them would not return home to vote as it would affect their livelihood,” says Geetha Ramakrishnan, the federation president. “Introducing the postal ballot paper facility is the best way to make sure they get to vote,” she suggests.

Efforts to enrol these migrant workers in the electoral rolls in Chennai have failed. “Local authorities told us Andhra and Orissa people could not vote in Tamil Nadu,” says T.K. Elumalai of the Rural Development Trust, an non-governmental organisation.

He says there are many workers who have made the labour camps their homes for over five years now and yet have no entitlements.

“Analysis of National Sample Survey data shows post-1993 the trend of long distance migration has increased sharply,” says Professor K. Nagaraj of the Madras Institute of Development Studies.

April-May is the lean season when there are no agricultural jobs in rural areas, forcing several lakhs of people to migrate to the cities.

Chief Electoral Officer Naresh Gupta told The Hindu that inclusion of the names of migrant workers in electoral rolls here was possible only if they could be established as the ordinary residents of the area. “But the problem is who will vouch for migrants?” he asks.

If the migrant workers comprise a fairly significant number, then some arrangements can be made to ensure they get a chance to vote, he says.

However, officials are hesitant to take up this work as there is the fear of impersonation, he adds. “Earlier Sri Lankan refugees had got enrolled posing as local residents. We have to be cautious of such misuse,” he says. Also, the postal ballot facility is extended only to electors employed in the defence services and those on election duty, he says.

Emphasising the crucial role played by the rural voter during elections, Anil Bairwal, national coordinator of Association for Democratic Reforms, suggests that the Election Commission can come up with a voter ID card easily transferable across constituencies. “A democracy can be successful only if every citizen gets to exercise his or her franchise,” he says.

(Originally published in The Hindu, Elections 2009 special page, April 26, 2009)

Also see a compilation of election manifestos of various political parties that also appeared in the ‘Elections’ page.

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Citizens with a grouse turn to 49-O option

CHENNAI: Several voters exercised the ‘no vote’ option as per rule 49 (O) of the Conduct of Election Rules, 1961, during the Lok Sabha polls here on Wednesday.

Kris Dev of Tamil Nadu Election Watch – an initiative of the Association for Democratic Reforms – said that this time voter awareness of this option had improved and several of them used it as a means to express their resentment against the political process of the time.

RTI (Right to Information Act) activist V. Madhav exercised the option at a polling booth in Lakshmi Nagar, Valasaravakkam.

He said that initially the polling agents tried convincing him to vote for one of the candidates. But, “I insisted on registering a no vote,” he said.

Bharath Ram, an architect who cast his vote in Pondy Bazaar said that he too registered a ‘no vote’ as a means to express his disillusionment with mainstream politics by registering his name at the booth and refusing to vote thereafter.

V. Suresh of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties said that the very fact that voters had to register their names to exercise the ‘no vote’ option revealed such voters’ identity. He suggested that the option be made available in electronic voting machines..

For nearly 60 residents of Manappakkam, Kolappakkam, Gerugambakkam, Tarappakkam and Kovoor villages of the Sriperumbudur Lok Sabha constituency, the 49 (O) option was a means to protest the acquisition of land for the airport expansion project.

Brinda Brighton of United People’s Forum for Survival – a forum of residents affected by the acquisition – said that though nearly 5,000 residents lived in these five villages, few opted for the 49 (O) option.

“Many feared revealing their identity this way,” she said. Another Valasaravakkam resident, who wished not to be named, said that he ended up casting his vote though he wished to use the 49 (O) option as the polling agents were not helpful.

Residents of Kannadapalayam near Tambaram who had earlier given a call to boycott the Lok Sabha polls, said that they wanted to exercise the ‘no vote’ option but found that the officials on poll duty did not have the requisite forms.

(Originally published in The Hindu, Tamil Nadu edition, dated May 14, 2009. Two other reporters P.Oppili and K.Manikandan gave inputs to this story)

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Flood relief money flows to the unaffected

Residents of Gandhi Mandapam Road, Kottur, were surprised when a bunch of men came knocking at their doors on Thursday, offering them flood relief money. The residents said they were not affected by flood last month unlike those in Kotturpuram who suffered due to inundation. A resident said that the men who were distributing money took Rs.500 for themselves and gave Rs.1,500 to the residents.

flood reliefHowever, residents of Kotturpuram, who were affected by the flood, had to resort to road roko to protest the delay in flood relief distribution. On Friday, several Kotturpuram residents were seen waiting at the Mylapore-Triplicane taluk office to get an endorsement in their family cards to avail themselves of Rs.2,000 given as flood relief. Banumathi, a resident of Ellaiamman Koil Street, said, “In our street only half the residents got the relief money.”

District Collector Mythili K. Rajendran said that enumeration was still on and those who had not  received the money yet would get it in the days to come. On those not affected by the flood receiving the relief, she said the “revenue officers do not go about distributing money at people’s homes. It is necessary to establish the identity of these men.”

Residents were also confused about the procedure adopted to identify eligible beneficiaries. Officials said that they identified “low-income group areas with the help of local councillors.” However, residents said that they had no prior knowledge of revenue officers or councillors visiting their areas. A Thiruvanmiyur resident D.Subramanian said that he was not at home when the revenue officials came. “Now, I am struggling to get an endorsement in my ration card to collect the relief money,” he said.

Alwarthirunagar resident P.S. Srinivasan said, “the compound wall of my house collapsed and electronic gadgets were damaged. But my name has not been included in the list of beneficiaries.”

Several men and women gathered outside the municipality office demanding relief money on Friday.

He said that resident protests were reported in Thiruverkadu, Kaduvetti and Ponneri areas and he was aiming to complete the relief distribution work by Sunday.

(Originally published in The Hindu, Tamil Nadu edition, dated Dec 21, 2008)


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Law college violence – the ground reality

law collegeThe 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, a 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.

Students Federation of India (SFI) member R.Thirumoorthy, a third-year B.A. B.L. student, said developments taking place in mainstream politics got reflected in politics within the campus, invariably.

He said, “To most college students and professors, the November 12 violence did not come as a surprise at all because we knew it would happen one day or the other,” he said.

Students aspiring for a career in politics are known to make their way into the college. S. Prasanna, now an active member of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam youth wing, said he perfected the craft of politics as a student at the Dr.Ambedkar Government Law College. He said he participated in several public meetings and protests and was able to deepen his understanding of the party’s ideology.

Prasanna, who passed out from college this year, was also quite frank about the deviant student culture there. “I remember a classmate of mine saying that a law college student could happily break signals and be sure he would be let off by the traffic police.” He said the students feared none and misused their newfound independence. He also spoke about how right from the first year of college, students were branded on the basis of their caste. “Most students keep to their own caste groups and rarely mingle with those from other communities,” he said.

What makes things worse is the poor academic atmosphere on the campus, said advocate Sudha Ramalingam. “Students passing out of the college hardly have any proper legal training and many of the interns working at my office do not even know basic things such as filing a brief for a court case,” she said. She said the college should have extra-curricular activities to give a cultural outlet to students. “They also need good role models in professors and seniors, which is not the case now,” she said.

Geetha Ramaseshan, lawyer and social activist, agrees that there is a lack of inspirational movements and leadership for young people to look up to. “One way of dealing with this is going inwards to look at identities based on caste or religion,” she says. Hence, identity politics is closely linked to the current economic situation, she adds.

Human rights activist A. Marx, who retired recently from Presidency College, said while compiling a fact-finding report on the recent violence, he found that lawyers themselves were divided on caste lines and politically affiliated. “So it is obvious that students find it convenient to align themselves with groups to which they naturally belong,” he said.

From his nearly 40 years’ experience in government colleges, he said none of them was free from political interference. “Political parties openly patronise and finance student leaders in colleges,” he said. Even professors and other staff were appointed and transferred in these colleges at the behest of powerful politicians.

Also, the class and caste composition of the student community determined the nature of politics on campus, he said. “Students of elite professional institutions who are assured of jobs while passing out are bound to behave differently from students who struggle to make it to college, in the first place, and are uncertain about their future because their institution cannot guarantee them one,” he observed.

WHAT THEY SAY


Sudha Ramalingam, advocate and human rights activist:

As a student of Law College I participated in the anti-emergency movement supporting the Janata Party in the 70’s. It initiated me into civil liberties activism. So, I will not say that student politics should be banned. But it should not be done at the cost of academics. It is good for students to be politically aware but it should not lead to deviant behaviour. Politicians too should stop exploiting young, vulnerable students for political gains. The last thing we want is students turning victims at the hands of political power mongers.”

(Originally published in The Hindu, Chennai edition, dated Nov 24, 2008)

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