Borrow money from private lenders to sink borewells on the dry riverbed, build cement washing troughs

Severe drought has forced washerfolk, who wash clothes for most of the laundries in the city, to sink deep borewells and build cement troughs on the dry Coleroon riverbed to carry on their trade this summer.

Essentially a flood carrier, the river has not seen any water flow for the past several months leaving the washerfolk literally high and dry this summer. Over 150 families are engaged in the trade and the river is not only their workplace but also their very lifeline.

The monsoon failure has rendered the river bone dry, leaving the washerfolk to scramble to borrow money from private lenders to sink deep borewells for a depth of about 30 to 35 feet on the riverbed and build the washing troughs to sustain their livelihood.

“We have not experienced such severe drought in the past decade. A small stream of water used to flow along the river banks even during the summer enabling us to carry on the trade. But this year, the river has gone totally dry. We had to sink borewells nearly 10 years ago during a similar drought,” recalls Anjalai, who has been engaged in the trade right from her childhood. The men and women had pooled their money to build the troughs in groups.

“The families had spent about Rs.10,000 to Rs.15,000 each to build the troughs, without which we can’t carry on the trade. We have borrowed the money from private lenders,” says Tamilselvam. The washerfolk are aware that their investment in building the troughs and borewells could go waste as they would most likely be washed away if there were to be heavy water discharge in the river. “We know the money will go waste. But we have no other go,” says Easwari, a young woman.

The Corporation, at the initiative of the local councillor K.Babu, had sunk a borewell and got a power connection for it too. But the washerfolk say it is not adequate to meet their water requirement.

Hence, some of them have borrowed money to sink nearly half-a-dozen borewells around their workplace spending about Rs.35,000 to Rs.40,000 each. Each worker contributes Rs.50 a day for using the water pumped from the borewells using diesel motors.

The fisherfolk wash the clothes for laundries at Rs.4 apiece but the limited water availability has impacted on their earnings.

The investments have also pushed up their operational costs. “If there is water flow in the river, we will wash about 150 clothes a day working in groups of two or three. But now we are able to wash just about 100 pieces a day,” says Easwari, who like several other youngsters have taken to the family trade right from childhood. “The money we earn is barely enough to pay the interest and keep our families going,” says Selvam.