Murugamma, 25, followed a tedious routine: She would get up at midnight and soak rice till 6 am. The rice then would be left to dry. The rest of the day she would pack up the dried rice. This was the soul-killing, back-breaking chore that she performed for 19 years without a break at a rice mill in Tiruvallur in Tamil Nadu.
Until a year ago, Murugamma was a bonded laborer. Ironically, it was government legislation which prohibited tribes access to forests that reduced Murugamma and her tribe, the Irulas, to economic bondage, a social curse that still plagues backward sections of society in India.
"I was born in a rice mill where my father and before that my grandfather was working. I started working at the age of six. Till the day I was rescued, I saw only seen the rice mill. I spent all my years soaking rice and drying it during the day. We never went to school,' says Murugamma, who was rescued from the rice mill in 2005 by Sarpam, a community-based organization run by Bharati Trust, a non-governmental organization (NGO).
Sarpam managed to rescue nearly 400 of the 6,800 Irulas who were working as bonded labourers in the rice mills of Tiruvallur. Murugamma was part of a group of Irulas that attended the India Social Forum held in New Delhi in November, 2006.
Now that she is free, she has no other plans - except those for her children.
When Mariamma expressed her desire to go to school when she was a young girl, she recalls the retort of the mill-owner: "Do you think you will become a (district) collector if you are educated?" She is now determined to send her children to school. "I want to provide my children with the education that I was denied," she says.
The Irulas, who were traditional rat- and snake-catchers, were deprived of their livelihood in the 1970s when the government introduced legislation to protect forests and wildlife. Denied access to the forests that was their traditional source of livelihood, they were forced to work as coolies in the towns. A major part of the community fell into the debt trap of Tamil Nadu's rice mill owners. Sometimes, the mill-owners would send them to Nellore in the neighboring state of Andhra Pradesh to work in the rice mills there. Of course, their bonded status continued.
It was a long time before they got together under the Irula Sangam, initiated by the Bharati Trust, to assert themselves. "It was their involvement with the Irula Sangam that made many Irulas confident. The Bharati Trust also informed them about their rights under the Indian Constitution as Scheduled Castes and Tribes," says Siddamma of Bharati Trust, who accompanied Murugamma and the others in her group to the ISF in New Delhi.
"We have registered it (Irula Sangam) as a trade union. In 2003, we decided to conduct a survey on the condition of Irulas working in the rice mills of the Red Hills area near Chennai. We were shocked by the findings. Three to four generations of Irulas had been confined to the rice mills, and they were not allowed to go out. While men were being killed, women were being sexually exploited. Children were being killed in the chulhas (stoves) meant to boil paddy," explains Siddamma,
The Irulas were paid Rs 14 for 19 hours of labor in a day. The men were also paid in kind, through bottles of liquor. They had to sleep and bathe in the open. They were denied medical attention. Pregnant women were denied rest and were forced to work within less than week after delivering the baby.
"Every moment we were thinking of the time when we would get out of hell," says Mariamma, 37, another Irula bonded labor who found her freedom. "They made us work so hard, with little food and hardly any salary that there was neither time nor capacity to look after my three children," she says.
Mariamma now works as an agricultural laborer and earns Rs 300 per week. "Earlier, my husband was paid with liquor bottles and he would enjoy his earnings on his own. Now I feel happy that we are both able to contribute to the family income," she says.
But it was not easy to help all the Irulas who were trapped in the rice mills. Not all of them were prepared to rebel. Bharati Trust brought in the National Commission for Women (NCW), and public hearings were held about the pathetic working conditions of the Irulas, especially the women. During the hearings, the case of a woman who died within days of childbirth came to light. She had apparently caught an infection from the boiler used to boil paddy and died.
When the NCW reports were published, the mill-owners were forced to reduce the debts that the Irulas owed them. And they also had to improve their working and living conditions.
There is hope for Murugamma and Mariamma, and many other Irulas caught in the ghastly rice mills. They can now dream for their children what was denied to them. But the struggle remains because there are many more who still need help to escape from the clutches of unscrupulous exploiters like the mill-owners in Tamil Nadu.