They turn rags into riches

ragpickerKantamma 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 from scrap collected 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)



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Voice of silence

TWENTY-TWO years ago, six young Indian women living in the United States – Radha Sharma Hegde, Shashi Jain, Rashmi Jaipal, Vibha Jha, Shamita Das Dasgupta and Kavery Dutta – founded Manavi to support victims of domestic violence. They were jolted into action after the story of Amita Vadlamudi, a battered Indian immigrant woman who killed her husband unable to tolerate his abuse, brought the issue of violence within homes out in the open.

When Manavi was born in 1985, it became the first South Asian women’s organisation seeking to address this issue in the U.S. Based in New Jersey, the non-profit and non-governmental organisation (NGO) handles the cases of an average of 300 women victims of domestic violence annually.

shamitaFrontline caught up with Shamita Das Dasgupta recently while she was on a visit to India. Quoting from a study, she described the disturbing pattern of domestic violence in the nearly two-million-strong Indian immigrant community in the U.S. The study, conducted among 160 highly educated South Asian women by A. Raj and J. Silverman and published in the Journal of American Medical Women’s Association in 2002 showed that 40.8 per cent of the respondents had been physically and/or sexually abused in some way by their current male partners; 36.9 per cent of this number reported that the victimisation happened one year before the study. However, only 3.1 per cent of the abused South Asian women in the study had ever obtained a restraining order against an abusive partner. The study says this rate is substantially lower than that reported in a study of women in Massachusetts, in which over 33 per cent of women who reported intimate partner violence in the past five years had obtained a restraining order.

Excerpts from Shamita Das Dasgupta’s conversation with Frontline:

When I started working among women victims of violence in the U.S. independently some 30 years ago, there was almost no one working in this area. The main reason for violence is the gender discrepancy of power. Most immigrants seem to carry with them their native cultural prejudices…they attempt to keep their dominance through violence. Also, among immigrant women there is this extraordinary tendency to keep the marriage intact regardless of the cost. Women tolerate violence. The social customs that approve endurance perpetuate the violence.

From hostility to awareness

When we started work in 1985, we got so many calls from so many battered women that it surprised us. Initially, we faced only hostility from the community and disbelief from the victims, as if there was no hope. But now women’s awareness of laws is improving and with help in hand more and more women are reporting such instances of violence to the police or to NGOs. The awareness generation done by Manavi and other similar organisations has proved useful. We must acknowledge, however, that there are still those among the Indian diaspora who are not aware of their rights. When it comes to women standing up to violence, community responses such as “this is not necessary” and “why wash dirty linen in public?” are common. But over the years, these responses have dwindled. At Manavi, we conduct visible community events such as marches and campaigns to generate awareness. Our organisation has also been featured in newspapers such as The New York Times and in radio talk shows. Our success has inspired several members of the South Asian diaspora to take up the cause of battered women. But we have come a long way.

Next year [in 2008], Manavi will conduct its third National Conference, urging South Asian Women to rise up against violence. Our short-stay home, Ashraya, provides shelter to battered women, whom we later refer to government homes if they need help.

Role of the American state

The U.S. government has played an important role in assisting NGOs to tackle the issue. During the 1970s, there was a significant women’s movement in the U.S. which held the state responsible for the welfare of women. A model under the Coordinated Community Response was developed to bring together state agencies and NGOs. NGOs get grants to run shelter networks. The Violence Against Women Act, 1994, has addressed the issue of domestic violence adequately. Also there are common torture and harassment laws that address issues of abuse. Many American States have adopted practices such as mandatory arrests and no-drop prosecution to ensure that victims of violence get justice.

Speedy justice

Speedy justice is a remarkable feature of U.S. courts. For instance, an Order for Protection can be issued overnight to victims to prevent violent or threatening acts – including stalking – harassment, and contact or communication from the abusive spouse. It can be either a criminal or a civil order. However, no verification is necessary under Federal law to issue an Order of Protection. Federal law requires that all valid Orders for Protection of any jurisdiction be enforced to protect victims wherever violation has occurred. Immediate action is taken by the police when protection orders are violated. Initiation of criminal procedure and arrest is quick. Though the police are trained to handle cases of domestic violence sensitively, much more remains to be done in this field as the problem is widespread. Also, there are issues such as contradictory legal systems, conflicts related to cultural issues such as stree-dhan – dowry and mehr – distrust of law enforcement, racism and xenophobia; language issues and perceptions of credibility pose problems.

Cultural assumptions

Immigrants hang on to their culture in a very strong way because of the constant fear of losing their identity in a foreign land – even to the extent that they hang on to an imaginary culture… These cultural notions often get distorted. For instance, several women I have dealt with assume that Indian culture accepts violence against women, which I think is a tremendous distortion. I ask the victims: Why ignore the empowering aspects of our culture? We urge these women to wake up and ask who benefits from perceived cultural notions?

I remember the case of this particular young woman from India who had two children and was physically abused and starved in her in-laws’ place in the U.S. When she came to us she couldn’t even speak proper English. We helped her to separate from her husband. She found herself a job in a hotel and was determined to bring up her children on her own. Today she is independent, drives a car and her children are doing well too. It is this resilience and courage of women that encourages us to keep going.

Today, thanks to the support system made available to battered women, several of them are able to stay aboard and find a job. We help them find these jobs, provide training, if need be. And most of them manage to survive on their own. Several women seek divorce from abusive husbands and carry on with their lives with dignity. But the problem of domestic violence is very much there and I feel the struggle has to go on.

(Originally published in Frontline, issue dated Dec 22-Jan4, 2008 as part of the Cover Story on ‘Violence against Women’)


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Rescuing children – the ChildLine success story

The success of ChildLine – 1098, the helpline providing emergency rescue services for children in distress is evident in the number of cases it handles every day.

Welfare Committee chairperson P. Manorama told The Hindu that due to the active child rescue operation co-ordinated by the helpline, between 60 and 80 new cases of children in need of care and protection are reported in a month.

“This is the highest number of cases reported from any Indian city. It has become possible because various government agencies have come together in an effort to rescue children from abusive situations,” she said. “More members of the public must come forward to report cases of children in distress,” she said.



Cases of child labour and runaway children are relatively higher in the city, she said. Recently two 16-year-old girls were found employed as servants in a ladies hostel in Velachery and rescued by members of ChildLine. ChildLine India senior programme coordinator R. Sahayaraj said the team members received a tip-off from a social worker and found the two girls working in the kitchen of the hostel after investigation.

“Once their age was established as below 18, we produced them before the Child Welfare Committee and warned the hostel not to employ children there any longer,” he said. However, different definitions of a ‘child’ in different laws pose challenges to the rescue workers.

While the Child Labour (Regulation & Prohibition) Act says children less than 14 years should not be employed in hazardous occupations which include domestic work, the Juvenile Justice Act defines anyone under the age of 18 as a child.

These conflicting definitions have allowed for a large number of children between the age of 14 and 18 to be employed and the employer going unpunished,” said Chandra Thanikachalam of the Indian Council for Child Welfare, one of the three NGOs coordinating the ChildLine.

Area of concern

Another area of concern has been a large number of children selling items such as ear buds, towels and water packets at traffic signals and other crowded public areas in the city.

“To put an end to this, greater participation is needed from members of the public,” Ms. Thanikachalam added.

The most important contribution of ChildLine has, indeed, been towards ensuring compulsory primary education of children.

“When the same child is found begging more than once, we do not return them to their parents. We enrol them in the juvenile homes to ensure that the child studies and is not forced into an abusive situation again,” she said.

Recalling an incident, Ms.Manorama of the CWC said, “A few months ago when The Hindu front-paged a report of child rag-pickers in Perungudi, officials of ChildLine and Labour Department faced much resistance in their efforts to rehabilitate them.

“The rescued children and their parents were initially hostile towards any kind of intervention. But today those children are in school and they are studying well,” she said. That is the kind of change we want to bring about, she summed up.

(Originally published in The Hindu, Chennai edition, dated Jun 29, 2009)

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Dealing with death, daily

gravediggerA gravedigger is to a corpse what a mother is to a child, says Sampath, who works at the Krishnampet burial ground behind the Light House. “You have to tend to the body with great care,” he says.

Besides digging graves , their job involves building stretchers for carrying the body, preparing the pyre and clearing the remains after the body is fully burnt. They also collect ashes from the gasifiers. “We handle all kinds of corpses like old men, children, AIDS victims, dog bite deaths, suicide cases…” he says nonchalantly.

So is the job depressing?

It only seems natural when the man, with his sturdy build and rugged face says he is used to it. But further probing shows he is not completely insensitive to the gravity of death or the pain of loss others feel. He confesses that handling the burnt body of a dowry harassment victim once disturbed him a lot.

Paulraj, who works in a cemetery in Kasimedu, says visitors often cry before the graves of their beloved ones. “Two days ago, a woman who had lost her son came here and was crying bitterly. I sat by her side and tried my best to console her,” he says.

Gravedigging is a family occupation for certain communities belonging to the Scheduled Castes. “My father did it, my grandfather did it, my great grandfather did it and now I do it…” says Jayaraman, an 50-year old, who has been in the job for four decades now. Ask him if he wants his son to follow the family line and without a second thought, he declares, “No.”

Traditionally known as ‘vettiyan,’ the gravediggers working for the Chennai Corporation are now referred to as ‘mayana udavialargal’ (crematorium assistants). This was after the civic body regularised their employment in July 2007. The step has brought a visible enhancement in their self-esteem.

But not all is well. Paulraj says almost all crematorium workers are alcoholics. “They get drunk to become numb to the smell of rotting carcasses,” he says.

Also the work can be hazardous to health. Graveyard keeper Sasikumar recounts how once the body of a person with a pacemaker in his heart had burst while being burnt. He says bodies that undergo post-mortem are wrapped in thick plastic and don’t decompose when buried.

“When we dig those spots for use later, the body would not have decomposed and emits harmful gases.”

Several burial grounds in the city have vast spaces with plenty of green cover and none of their characteristic eeriness. Sampath says laughingly, “Many young people who visit the Citi Centre think the neighbouring ground is a garden and stray in. When we tell them that it is a graveyard, they get scared and run away.”

When asked if gravediggers are afraid themselves, they say no. But the Krishnampet burial ground, for one, has two dogs for protection, not from ghouls, but from miscreants.

Sampath says three months ago two men on a motorbike entered the ground and tried to bury a male baby alive.

The mouth of the baby had been stuffed with cotton, but it managed to cough and the workers were alerted. “We informed the police immediately and they took the boy away. The two men had meanwhile escaped on their bikes,” he says.

But be it day or night, gravediggers have to carry out their work. “We do have fixed working hours, but then who can predict when it is time to dig someone’s grave?” asks Sasikumar.

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

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Manual scavenging in Chennai Central station

Though manual scavenging has been banned by law since 1993, men and women continue to manually remove human waste lying on the tracks and inside train toilets at the Chennai Central railway station.

Railway authorities produce a list of sophisticated cleaning machines they have purchased to prove how they have done away with manual scavenging. But, not a single sanitary worker could be spotted using any of them.manual scavenging

Most of them were seen removing excreta on the tracks with brooms and metal plates. Health officers maintain that workers only used water jets to clear excreta and directed them into nearby channels which emptied into the drains. But this arrangement was not found working efficiently.

Sanitary workers told The Hindu hose pipes supplying water meant for cleaning often leaked and the force generated was not sufficient. In the end, they have to only use brooms and metal plates for scraping the dirt off the tracks.

Even the channels conducting waste into the drains are not well-dug and water mixed with excreta stagnates in them. The workers have to drag their brooms along the channels to clear them.

For now, the Chennai Central has about 30 sanitary workers employed on a contractual basis in Zone I (platform 1-6). Zone II (platforms 7-12) is cleaned by close to 40 railway employees. Of this, only two persons are engaged for removing excreta piled on a single track, says a senior sanitary worker. This is an enormous task, considering the tracks are 600 m long.

None of the sanitary workers are provided gloves, gum boots or masks while cleaning. They say they are not even provided a soap to bathe with after work.

Many of them suffer from skin allergies and other occupational hazards. Also, sanitary workers on contract get exploited for labour. For a 12-hour shift they are paid a measly Rs. 40 a day.

Lack of adequate public sanitation facilities is to be blamed for this state of affairs. For a station that sees nearly two lakh visitors a day, the Chennai Central has only two pay-and-use toilet complexes for public use.

Railway authorities point out that there are more toilets available in the waiting rooms on the first floor. But then again, the station has no sign boards to tell visitors where they are.

And anyways, why would someone pay to answer nature’s call when toilets inside trains waiting on platforms are available for use? The public blissfully ignore notice boards that discourage them from doing so.

A sanitary worker told The Hindu that Charminar Express, which pulls into the Chennai Central by around 8 am, serves as a free toilet for several early morning office-goers. “It takes us an hour to clean up the mounds of waste from its toilets,” he says.

The Railway authorities responsible for sanitation blame “beggars, urchins and those who roam aimlessly inside the station” for dirtying train toilets and tracks. But, the sanitary workers say that a large number of passengers boarding trains in the morning use train toilets.

The authorities blame the contractors for the plight of sanitary workers saying they are ill-equipped for the job. However, sources say the problem lies with issuing low value tenders for sanitary work as professional contractors would not come forward in such cases.

N. Penchalaiah, general secretary of All India Safai Mazdoor Congress said, “I am tired of pleading the authorities to find a workable solution for the sanitation problem. As long as there is someone to do the dirty job for them, they don’t care.”

(Originally published in The Hindu dated May 22, 2008)

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Abandoned woman found lying near garbage pile

stellaHer name is Stella. Found lying on a pavement on Blacker’s Road, off Anna Salai, on Wednesday morning, this 80 year old was almost unconscious. Holding on to a small jute bag and a walking stick in her wrinkled hands, Stella was a picture of plight. And she stank. Flies swarmed around her as there was a pile of garbage close to her head. A few metres away from where she laid, a portion of the wall served as a public urinal. A man was seen jumping over her to reach the urinal.

Bystanders, including autorickshaw drivers at a stand and a parking lot attendant, said she had been spotted on the pavement here several times. Upon probing, Stella said in her toothless babble: “I fell down last night while picking garbage here.” She pointed to a bruise on her right elbow. Since no one came forward to help her up, she continued to lie there. Finally dialling ‘108’ brought the ambulance and Stella was shifted to the Government General Hospital.

For the hospital attendants, though, Stella was yet another of the many “unknown patients” who get dumped here on an everyday basis. GH Resident Medical Officer A.Muthurajan said sometimes people admitted old patients and never returned to take them back.

S. Santhosh, a social worker at the Elder Helpline ‘1253’ said that in a month they received at least 50 cases of old men and women lying abandoned in street corners, bus stops or railway stations. “There may be many more such cases that go unreported,” he said. The city has 52 free old age homes, some government-run and others managed by NGOs, to cater to such persons. “But, these homes would admit them only if they were found to be destitute,” he said.

Geriatrician V.S.Natarajan, who previously headed the geriatric ward at the Government General Hospital, observed that most old persons found unconscious or abandoned on the streets suffered from a multitude of health problems such as lack of nutrition and starvation, skin infection, chest infection, dehydration and mobility problems.

D.D.A. Prabhakaran of non-governmental organisation Little Drops urged the public to be proactive and report cases of old people found lying abandoned on the streets. “The least we can do is to pick up the phone and dial 1253,” he said.

(Originally published in The Hindu, Chennai edition, Jan 01, 2009)

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Imagining the world from his bed


For someone who has been paralysed by a degenerative disease and confined to bed for nearly 18 years now, painter R. Udhaikumar has been astonishingly prolific, making nearly 700 paintings in the last 10 years. He told Vidya Venkat that persons with disability need to be recognised by their talent.

Art is a way of making one’s life meaningful for a person with disability. “I live through my paintings,” says Mr. Udhaikumar, who has to be propped up with pillows under his arms and limbs to stay steady. Surviving on a liquid diet, he takes up to a month to finish a painting.

“I get fatigued if I sit and paint for too long,” he says. Affected with spinal muscular atrophy, his muscles are wasted. He can move only two fingers in his left hand, with which he paints.

But what is it that prompts him to be at it despite the odds? “For me it’s therapy,” he explains. “It’s my way of expressing my innermost thoughts. It also helps let out frustrations,” he says.

Having picked up the nuances of painting by attending a workshop held by the abstract artist K.M. Adimoolam, Mr. Udhaikumar’s oeuvre comprises monotone sketches and acrylic paintings which include landscape and abstract work. “Making portraits of the self is the most challenging task,” he says.

His self-portraits are mostly monotone sketches that show him bending over a canvas from the behind. “Imagining myself while drawing is the hard part,” says the artist, who has reproduced even paintings of famous archaeological sites he has seen on television.

His work surprises with a splash of bright colours – a yellow horse on a red backdrop, a turquoise blue sky before the rain… They are partly inspired by fantasy and partly by observing daily life, he says.

He was 13 years old when his spinal cord got bent and he became immobile. He finished schooling but could not pursue education. “Television is my window to the world,” he says. “I watch channels such as Discovery and other history programmes from which I draw inspiration for my work.”

It has been three years since Mr. Udhaikumar exhibited his paintings, though he is eager to reach out to the world through his work. “Getting the paintings framed is difficult as it involves a lot of money and effort,” he says.

Living with aged parents who are pensioners, he says he sometimes cannot afford the kind of money needed to put together an exhibition. He is also eager to show his work to veteran Tamil actor Sivakumar, who is also a painter, and get feedback from him on his work.

“I want to be recognised by my work, not my disability,” he stresses. “My muscles may be weak, but I am keeping my mind firm.”

(Originally published in The Hindu, Chennai edition dated Jun 07, 2009)

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