When CRY (Child Relief and You) realised that no documentation had been done of the lives of quarry workers - an occupation that employs seven-and-a-half lakh families in Tamil Nadu alone - they set out to remedy it. Kutti Revathi, writer and activist, joined them, and they set out across the barren stone fields of Tamil Nadu.
"Kal Manithargal" (Stone Humans), the stark, austere documentary born out of their travels, traces the travails of these workers in districts such as Dindigul, Pudukkottai and Madurai. There are more than 5,000 stone quarries - legal and illegal - in the State.
The film goes on to reveal how this occupation has become largely unregulated and unfettered, as gaunt and helpless quarry workers battling starvation and destitution take us through the stories of their lives.
"Quarry work is a dangerous profession, and most of them usually don't live past the age of 60," says Kutti Revathi. "They don't have ration cards, as they have to move from one State to the other in search of work, and so they get no Government benefits. They start work at six in the morning, in areas thick with the dust of rock and explosives, and they get about Rs. 7 to Rs. 10 for 12 hours of backbreaking work."
CRY and its partner QWDS (Quarry Workers Development Society) are particularly concerned about the predicament of the children. Parents, having no option but to carry their newborns to the blistering rocks where they work, usually leave them in makeshift cradles that hang from scraggly thorn trees. Also, since the workers usually do not stay in the same place for more than three months, the children don't attend school.
In fact, as the film tells us, between the ages of two and five, the children are already holding hammers and joining their parents at work. "These children and their lives are extremely vulnerable," says Dominic, CRY's project manager for the film. "The women have a different story to tell. They are sexually abused regularly, but most of them don't even tell their families, because they are helpless as well," says Kutti Revathi.
Songs of suffering
The film is peppered with songs and sayings of the quarry workers; they are tinged with irony. "Even a mountain can be broken by a little chisel," reads one, "but nothing can dissolve a worker's loan."
"Five-and-a-half lakh families that work in quarries are bonded labourers," says S.P. Gnana Mani, president of the TKTS, an organisation of workers working for more rights for their community. The TKTS started a residential school in Dindigul for the children of quarry workers - a first of its kind. They are the first generation of quarry workers to have crossed Class X.
In the dark
The film ends with one of the haunting songs they sing to distract themselves while working in the maddening heat. "We are the people who crush the rock, ours is the nation that lies in the dark," it goes, in an undulating strain that seems as helpless as the workers.
Kutti Revathi tells us how carefully guarded these quarries are, and that even after six months on the field, there is much left to learn.
"We would pretend we were shooting for a movie. It was the only way to get in."
CRY does not intend to stop here. Its plans include screening the movie in every district in the State, and then to take it to the international arena as well. "This is only the beginning," says KuttyRevathi.
(The film is available at the CRY office, Mylapore. For details, call 24672241/ 1828.)