Inadequate transport, high ticket fares, and the need to save money compel them to take chances, writes Aruna V. Iyer

Every day over 60,000 people living in and around Tiruchi wake up to a common routine: working in the city’s burgeoning construction industry, these daily-wage labourers arrive in large groups by 8.30 am and hope to be back home by at least 10 pm. However, their day could go out of kilter on several counts, ranging from not being hired that day, to not surviving to see another similar day. Meet one of the city’s largest floating populations, who are willing to take the risk of travelling unprotected on lorries , rather than taking a bus or train back home.

“While those who come from Manapparai heavily depend on the single train service between Dindigul and Tiruchi, people from farther places like Vayyampatti, Viralimalai and Nagamangalam are forced to hitch rides on lorries, despite risk of an accident,” says K. Suresh, district secretary, Tamil Nadu All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC) Construction Workers Union. Explaining the reluctance to use public transport, Mr. Suresh blames the inadequate services and high ticket prices.

“If we miss the bus once, the next will hopefully arrive only after two hours. And if we do catch the bus, we have to shell out between Rs.20 and Rs.25 for one way of the journey,” says Chinna Ponnu from Kovilpatti. However, their lorry rides cost them half the money or nothing, if they get lucky. The general attitude is to save money, despite news of periodic accidents where people were either chronically injured or killed. “Just four days ago, a lorry with at least 10 people headed towards Kovilpatti met with an accident. None of them can return to work for a while,” Chinna Ponnu adds matter-of-factly.

According to Mr. Suresh, the lorry riders are more common among those from places like Vayyampatti and Viralimalai: the bus frequency is comparatively higher towards Lalgudi, Musiri and Tiruverumbur sides, and the distances shorter, he says. Citing an example for the other end, he says, “People coming from Podhigaipatti, a village near Manapparai, have to walk an hour to reach Manapparai town where they catch a bus to Tiruchi, because there are no buses to their village.”

On an average, the female labourers, who lift bricks, sand and remove rocks from foundation pits, get paid around Rs.250 a day; while the men, who work as masons, concrete mixers, carpenters and painters get paid between Rs.400 and 600 a day. While there are many families in which both the husband and wife work at construction sites, there are others where the husband, who practices farming when and if it rains, stays behind to take care of the house and children. “My family is almost entirely dependent on my earnings, which means I cannot spend too much on travel and food,” says S. Amudha from Viralimalai. Despite the hardships involved, Amudha and her friends say they are not willing to look for other jobs. “If you cut firewood they will pay you just Rs.30 a day and you have no idea when you will actually receive your pay,” says A. Jagadambal, who adds that the construction industry at least pays them promptly every Saturday.