A month before Women’s Day, SOMA BASU learns about Thayammal whose crusade in the 1930s forced authorities to take note of the miserable living conditions of the Madurai slum dwellers

Thayammal was an extrordinary woman. Eighty years ago, as a member of the Madurai Council, she tried improve the lot of manual scavengers and rag pickers who resided in the slum of Melavasal then. It was a reformist legislation that she brought about at a time when empowerment was still an unknown word. But she spoke for the people straight from her heart and her persuasive appeal left the other Council members with no other choice but to give her a standing ovation and second her proposal.

A document about the proceedings of the Madurai Council on June 7, 1933, available at the District Documentation Centre, records the tabling of the resolution in Tamil by Thayammal.

The regular Madurai Municipal Council meeting attended by prominent Madurai citizens, including E.M. Gopalakrishna Konar, L.K. Thulasiram and Nallathambi Pillai with V.Muthramier in the Chair, was stunned into silence one hot summer afternoon as the only woman member read out the resolution.

In a voice choked with emotion, she said, how saddened she was to see the plight of her children whose dreams of leading an honourable life, in the abode of Goddess Meenakshi, was shattered.

Thayammal gave her voice for the entire community of poor and uneducated people who were leading a life of discrimination and rejection in garbage–strewn slums. She observed that the cheris (slums) in the municipal area were unfit for human habitation. There were no taps, wells or water. Hygiene required immediate attention. She sought funds for “modernising” on priority the scavengers’ colony adjacent to Raja Mill and the slum on the west of Police Parade Ground in TPK Road.

Retired Prof. S.Rengasamy of Madurai Institute of Social Sciences, who has translated the resolution in English, says the “words, vision, language reflected in the original document show a simple woman’s maternal love for the neglected.”

Thayammal had appealed, “This is the most pressing work on our hand this year. I need not educate my learned colleagues that this work has to be carried out everywhere without any obstacle and without anybody’s reminder. Postponement of this noble task on the grounds of shortage of funds will only tarnish the image of our city. The shortage of funds may be over come by austerity measures and transfer of funds from various heads.” She went on, “What we are going to do is not an act of mercy but it is our duty and responsibility to free our fellow human beings from the intolerable suffering due to lack of drinking and bathing water which makes their living place a breeding ground of diseases. I solicit the cooperation of all members in shouldering the responsibility to uplift the living conditions of the down trodden, an act which is nothing short of worship to god. Kindly extend your utmost support in passing this resolution unanimously, for true manliness lies not in self-advancement but in selfless service to society.”

Thayammal’s statement was made in 1933 by a woman whose services no elder in the city is able to recall. The fact that her descendants are not immediately traceable indicates that she perhaps did not belong to an affluent family, says Prof.Rengaswamy.

However it is recorded that the resolution was put into action and 180 houses were constructed in Sangili Thoppu, Simmakkal, Moolakarai, Subramaniyapuram and Melavasal and opened for occupation in 1940.

These five habitations, says Prof.Rengaswamy, are not mere physical structures.” “It was,” he adds, “the reflection of the conscience of Madurai city. Thayammal’s concern shows how strongly she felt about the issue”.

The unsung woman Councillor laid the foundation for a dignified living of thousands of people demonstrating what representatives of local self-governments can achieve.

Unfortunately, the present state of the habitations which Thayammal sought to change for the better is deplorable. There is little evidence that the lives of the poor have improved. Her proposal is worthy of emulating even today. Somebody can take the initiative to fulfil the clauses in the original resolution to renovate the model cheris.