Plight of 350 policewomen posted at Attukal

This year's International Women's Day on March 8 held little cheer for the 350 policewomen who painstakingly executed the task of festival-related crowd control and law-and-order duties at the Attukal temple here this week.

Breaking out of their veneer of official punctiliousness, several of them voiced their collective tales of distress to The Hindu at the festival venue on March 7.

As always, the tumult and excitement of the festival had eclipsed their workplace woes from the public eye. And the top brass of the State police seemed indifferent to their plight yet again.

Around 150 policewomen had been posted at the temple from February 28th. As many as 200 others joined them on March 5, three days ahead of the conclusion of the Pongala festival, arguably the largest religious congregation of women in the world.

The policewomen were charged with the physically and mentally exhausting task of regulating the seemingly never-ending tide of devotees converging on the temple for ten consecutive days. They worked continuous eight- to ten-hour shifts and returned again to their posts after a brief respite of five or six hours.

It was not the tough duty, but rather the sheer lack of basic camping facilities and the arguably poor quality of food served in the common mess that seemed to have distressed the working women.

Several said that more than 150 of them were jam-packed like ‘sardines in a fish hawker's basket' in a poorly ventilated dormitory that could barely hold 50 persons.

“There were only six toilets, in different locations, for 350 women. Shower facilities were limited. At times, piped water ran dry and overuse rendered the crammed toilets filthy and unhygienic,” one said.

Around 200 policewomen who arrived from other districts for crowd-control duty at Attukal on March 5 night, found the dormitory assigned to them, a hall that once housed a blood bank, grimy, cobwebbed, and its few toilets unclean. The police had to plead with the owner of a nearby training institute to allow the women to sleep there for one night.

“We had no place to wash, dry, or iron our sweat-drenched uniforms and little privacy to change to civil clothes during duty breaks,” one said. Many policewomen slept in their uniforms. Most depended on the charity of local residents to wash their clothes, use toilets, and get few hours of much-needed sleep.

On the last day of the festival, their mess did not serve them lunch due to some administrative overlook. Whatever it took, the women said they would report for duty dressed meticulously and truly officer-like. They have not been paid anything extra for their strenuous work.

Several sustained sprained backs, twisted ankles, and sore shoulders after 10 days of hectic duty, which included standing and jostling with crowds for several hours at a stretch.

Most women could not see their children for several days at a stretch. One said she would coax and cajole her two-year-old ‘inconsolable' daughter to sleep on her mobile phone. It then came as no surprise that the International Women's Day, which carried the universal message of women empowerment, held little meaning for these policewomen.