Around 60 washermen families are dependent on the water body abutting the Red Hills reservoir

A small pond abutting the Red Hills reservoir is the secret behind all those crisp cotton dhotis and shirts worn by local politicians of north Chennai.

If it were not for the pond, around 60 washermen families in and around Red Hills would find themselves without a livelihood.

While the mammoth reservoir spread across 18 sq. km. is the lifeline of Chennai, as it is the city’s primary source of drinking water, the pond, located just downstream of the huge 15-ft. weir (a structure that allows surplus water to flow out of the reservoir) is the washermen’s primary source of income.

A narrow road in Puzhal is the only access to the small dhobikana. If not for the pond, which collects rainwater downstream of the reservoir, their occupation would have been completely wiped out, say washermen here, who spend most of their day washing and drying clothes in the area.

Their livelihood has survived in what is now a dying occupation, mainly because of their strong and loyal clientele base formed by local politicians, whose preferred attire is white clothes that sparkle. Other clients include a few local lodges and hotels.

“My family has been in the profession for five generations now. Many politicians in our neighbourhood prefer to give their clothes to me as my charges are lower than the dry cleaning outlets. My income is not much, but I know only this work and have continued to do it despite all odds,” said P. Gunasekaran who takes the help of his wife and brother P. Ethiraj for his strenuous work.

The washermen go to the pond at least four times a week and wash up to 200 clothes each time. “Many have given up the occupation as there are not enough water sources or manpower. If the pond dries up in the summer, we dig wells at depths of five feet and use the water,” said Baskar of Puzhal.

Only a few of the washermen run shops. Many of them, like J. Murugan of Red Hills, do their work from home. “I charge Rs. 15-Rs. 20 per piece. But I spend most of it on cleaning agents. So, I run my business from home and get customers through word of mouth,” said Murugan.

More In: Chennai | News