Special Correspondent

CHENNAI: When Shanti was 17, her family finally succumbed to the lure of a broker. Her parents were daily wage earners in Theni and could not educate their two girls. With the girls growing up to late adolescence, her parents feared they might not be able to marry them off.

So, they sent Shanti and her sister to A.G. Spinning Mill, Coimbatore, to be contracted under the ‘Sumangali Thittam.’ They were assured Rs.30,000 each at the end of three years, a monthly salary and could draw on the provident fund amount at the end of the period. They worked there for two-and-a-half years until Shanti lost her hand (from the wrist downwards) working on a spinning machine. Her employers treated her at a hospital and sent her home, telling her that her contract amount had been exhausted by paying her medical bills.

On Tuesday, Shanti took the stage at a public hearing organised by the Tamil Nadu State Commission for Women on the Sumangali Thittam and told the jury members that she was sent home with no money and one hand less. “I’m now dependent on my mother to do everything… Who will give me a job now?”

The six-member jury took up her case and instructed the mill owners to pay up within a week the amount due. For the relatives of young girls who died while working in the mills, compensation was worked out and notices issued to the owners.

Focussing primarily on granting compensation and paying salary and contract amounts to women who were allegedly defrauded by the spinning mills under the Sumangali Thittam, the public hearing may have just solved the compensation issues of about 40 people.

But, this is only the tip of the iceberg. According to information received by the Campaign for the Rights of the Unorganised Workers, there are over 37,000 girls and women working in 913 cotton mills in Tamil Nadu.

The Sumangali Thittam, also known as Mangalya Thittam or Camp Coolie Scheme, was introduced nearly a decade ago by the State government to facilitate women from poor families to earn some money in order to get married. In its implementation, the scheme has been exploitative and against the human rights of women and children and labour policies, activists charged.

The jury members were R.M. Ramathal, chairperson, State Commission for Women (SCW); A.K. Rajan, retired judge, Madras High Court; K. Sampath Kumaran, chairman, Appellate Authority, Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board; K. Santhakumari, senior advocate; Qudsia Gandhi, member, SCW; and Cynthia Alexander, gynaecologist.