Thayammal, a Madurai woman who stood up for the voiceless slumdwellers in 1933

On June 7 that year, Thayammal, the only woman member of the Madurai Municipal Council, read out a resolution. It highlighted the abominable living conditions of the poor and sought immediate release of funds for modernising two slums

Updated - March 08, 2024 12:10 pm IST

Published - March 08, 2024 12:45 am IST

Historic report: The proceedings of the council on June 7, 1933, were reported in detail in The Hindu of June 8, 1933.

Historic report: The proceedings of the council on June 7, 1933, were reported in detail in The Hindu of June 8, 1933.

On a hot summer afternoon 90 years ago, Sri Thayammal, the only woman member of the then Madurai Municipal Council, became the voice of the voiceless when she moved a powerfully worded resolution in Tamil, seeking urgent improvement in the condition of cheris (slums) in the temple town. Thayammal’s heart beat for rag pickers, manual scavengers, and all those caught in the web of poverty and illiteracy, who were leading a life of discrimination and rejection in the garbage-strewn slums. The ‘scavenger’s colony’ was unfit for human habitation owing to the lack of amenities.

On June 7, 1933, Thayammal drew the council’s attention to the abominable living conditions of the poor and read out her resolution in an emotionally choked voice, seeking immediate release of funds for modernising on a priority two cheris — one to the south of the Raja Mills and the other to the west of the Police Parade Ground, earlier called the Kavaathu Maidanam, on Tirupparankunram Road. It took a deeply concerned Thayammal to propose a reformist legislation at a time when women rarely got a chance to prove their leadership abilities. Her persuasive appeal came straight out of her heart and stunned the council members into silence. They gave her a standing ovation and seconded her proposal unanimously.

The proceedings of the council on June 7, 1933, were reported in detail in The Hindu of June 8, 1933. It was a day of regular meeting attended by two dozen councillors, including L.K. Thulasiram, Umapathy Aiyar, and Nallamuthu Pillai, with V. Muthrama Aiyar in the chair, and some prominent Madurai citizens, including E.M. Gopalakrishna Konar, A. Vaidyanatha Aiyar, and Sivaramakrishna Aiyar, seated in the visitors’ gallery. Some 15 years ago, at the District Documentation Centre (DDC), then housed at the Madurai Corporation Office on Aringar Anna Maligai, Srinivas Rengasamy, retired Dean of the Madurai Institute of Social Sciences, came across the important resolution tabled by Thayammal. Professor Rengasamy says he was taken in by the heavy-duty words, the strong feelings so transparently conveyed and the language of the original resolution in Tamil. He wanted to take a photocopy of the document. But he did not get the permission to do so.

Resolution translated

So, he kept visiting the centre to just re-read the resolution and get into the skin of the vision behind it. Professor Rengasamy says the only option for him was to copy the resolution word by word, which he did over days, and later translated the resolution into English for record sake. “The translation is nothing before the original in Tamil, the phrasing was like maternal love personified, a simple woman who felt for the downtrodden like her own children,” he says. He used the document in one of his monographs published in 2008, as a mark of respect to Thayammal.

That Thayammal was determined to lay the foundation for a dignified living of the teeming ordinary is evident in her appeal. As translated by Professor Rengasamy, it reads, “This is the most pressing work on our hand this year. I need not educate my learned colleagues that this work has to be carried out everywhere without any obstacle and without anybody’s reminder. Postponement of this noble task on the grounds of shortage of funds will only tarnish the image of our city. The shortage of funds may be overcome by austerity measures and transfer of funds from various heads.” She went on, “What we are going to do is not an act of mercy but it is our duty and responsibility to free our fellow human beings from the intolerable suffering due to lack of drinking and bathing water, which makes their living place a breeding ground of diseases. I solicit the cooperation of all members in shouldering the responsibility to uplift the living conditions of the downtrodden, an act which is nothing short of worship to god. Kindly extend your utmost support in passing this resolution unanimously, for true manliness lies not in self-advancement but in selfless service to society.”

Nomenclature changed

It was also recorded that after Thayammal read out the resolution, an amendment was brought by changing the nomenclature of ‘modern’ cheris to ‘model’ cheris by some council members and it was immediately resolved to provide 12 houses on each side of the Raja Mills and the Police Parade Ground cheri with arrangements for water supply, lighting, flush latrines, and sanitation. Action was initiated and 180 houses were constructed at Sangili Thoppu, Simmakkal, Moolakarai, Subramaniyapuram, and Melavasal, and opened for occupation in 1940.

Unfortunately, in modern times, the condition of the model cheris has gone back to being deplorable. However, Thayammal’s proposal in spirit is worth replicating even today, what with the city now having 200-plus slum colonies. “Authorities should take the initiative and launch it as Thayammal Memorial Habitation Improvement Programme,” Professor Rengasamy suggests. The timeless and valuable resolution that unmistakably shows a woman’s social outlook and might is untraceable now. Eight years ago, the DDC shifted to a new address on Old Ramanathapuram Road. Many old documents and files apparently got damaged or were lost during the shift, according to the District Record Centre Assistant and the Record Storage Officers. The record of a swadeshi resolution moved by a woman councillor may have been misplaced but the contribution of Thayammal must not be forgotten.

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