That shirt you gave to the laundry could well have been washed by the neighbourhood dhobi

There was a time when the dhobi was part of the household machinery. He came home, collected the dirty clothes — particularly the big ones such as bedsheets and white school uniforms at the end of a muddy summer — and dropped off the neatly washed and pressed stacks in, may be, a fortnight.

Today, as the city speeds into the 21st Century, there are services and professions that get left behind if they don't reinvent themselves. This seems to be the case especially with the washerman community (Madivala or Madi). With dry cleaners/laundry service centres coming up across the city, coupled with encroachment or “development” of lakes and limited protection of the traditional dhobi ghats, the age-old profession of the neighbourhood washerman appears to be taking a beating.

Named after them

More than 2,580 washermen are dependent on the 22 dhobi ghats or on the water bodies across the city. It is no wonder that the city's second largest water body — Madivala Lake — is named after the community.

Y.C. Ramesh (45), a washerman from Yelahanka who also owns a laundry centre, said that most dhobis have traditionally been dependent on the city's water bodies. “However, local authorities spare little thought for us. With the ‘development' of Yelahanka Lake, more than 150 dhobis have been affected. While the men can take their two-wheelers or walk to Kogilu Lake, which is six km away, the women are affected, as they cannot lug heavy bundles of clothes and walk that distance,” he said.

No social security

Another cause for concern is the lack of any social security or benefits. Puttarangaiah, general secretary, Old and New Dhobi Ghat Washermen Association, told The Hindu that on an average, a dhobi washes more than 150 clothes a day. “Many youngsters, who don't have any job skills, become dhobis. The occupation drains the life out of them. Most can continue to be washermen for a maximum of 20 years. The elderly suffer the most, but the Madivala community is not organised to help itself,” he said.

Not much done

Though the washermen are listed in the unorganised sector, this has not helped them much. An official from the Unorganised Workers' Social Security Board admitted that the board has failed to reach benefits such as accident compensation, education assistance for children and funeral expenses to the community, but blamed it on cash crunch.

“We need to get funds from either the State or the Centre for this. However, we have extended the NPS Life Swavalamban Scheme, which is a contributory pension scheme where the individual pays Rs. 1,200 a year. The State Government will match the payment, and the Centre, Rs. 1,000,” he said.

However, this does not wash with the community. “How can a poor dhobi pay Rs. 1,200 a year? One of our long-pending demands is to be included in the Scheduled Castes. But due to the lack of political representation, our needs have not been addressed,” Mr. Puttarangaiah said.

R. Raghu, former chairperson of the Karnataka Exhibition Authority, who belongs to the community, said that many States had included Madivalas in the Scheduled Castes list.

“The community comes under Category 2A. There are more than 103 communities under the same category, the major being Kurubas. Smaller communities such as the Madivala and the Kumbara don't get much reservation benefits; neither is there any protection of their occupation,” he said.

Competition

Dhobis today face serious competition from laundries. K.S. Venkatesh (47), a washerman at the Old Dhobi Ghat in Vyalikaval, said that people would rather give their clothes to a laundry.

“However, many don't realise that laundry owners give the clothes to the dhobis as piece work. While we get a maximum of Rs. 5 per cloth, the laundry owner charges not less than Rs. 50. Dhobis barely recover the cost of the cleaning agents with this,” he said.

Land sharks

Among the threats are the land sharks as most dhobi ghats are located in prime areas owned by the Bruhat Bangalore Mahanagara Palike. Mr. Puttarangaiah urged the BBMP to protect its own land to help the community switch over to mechanisation. “The Government should also provide us subsidy for electricity,” he said.

BBMP officials said that mechanisation plans were on the cards. They conceded that there was need to survey and protect the dhobi ghats.

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