On September 27, 2007, Nagammal’s life came to a standstill when she received the tragic news of three deaths—her husband, Kannaiyan, cousin and uncle.
The three men were conservancy workers (safai karamcharis) and died while working in a septic tank, due to exposure to poisonous gases and substances.
“I was in shock. I don’t even remember how I traveled with his body to Pamuru, his native village in Andhra Pradesh and how his last rites were performed. He was hardly 34 at the time, and I was 29. I had to be taken to the hospital where I was given electroconvulsive therapy to come to my senses and see the reality finally,” recalls the 42-year-old fighter who has been struggling to get justice not just for herself but any other women in her position.
A mason and coolie by profession, Kannaiyan was from the Adi Dravida Madiga community, the members of which have traditionally been employed as manual scavengers.
While Kannaiyan was a mason and coolie by profession, he would sometimes clean septic tanks as a part-time job. When his wife, Nagammal, found out that he worked in the sewers, she protested.
“I was 18 when I got married to him. At the time, I knew that he worked in the construction line as a mason but later found out that he was cleaning septic tanks as well. That worried me, and as I did not want him to endanger his life, I opposed it. But, he continued without telling me. That fateful morning when the news came, I realised that three people from my family were dead because of this work and no one was held responsible. This was murder, but no one was held accountable. I didn’t even receive any help or assistance from the government or officials. How could that be fair? Don’t our lives matter?” she adds.
Nagammal’s story is like that of hundreds of women in India, whose lives have been torn apart due to caste-based discrimination and social ignorance.
After the death of her husband, she had to face hell, every step of the way. From trying to find justice, getting her rightful compensation, opening a shop to earn livelihood to educating her children, everything has been a struggle that she fearlessly confronted.
“I knew about the injustice we had to endure but did not know any way of fighting against it. It was then that I received help from the Safai Karmachari Andolan (SKA) in 2013. The Supreme Court judgment had mandated compensation for families of all those who lost their lives cleaning sewers, back in 2014, but it still took two years to make it happen. With SKA’s support, I was finally able to get a compensation of Rs 10 lakh from the municipal corporation in November 2016. SKA made me aware of my rights, which is of absolute importance,” says Nagammal, who now works closely with SKA to help other women in similar situations.
She believes it is only through education and awareness that the people of the community can truly overcome the socio-economic struggle.
“After my husband passed away, I realised that I had another purpose, to live for my daughters and took up a housekeeping job which I hated. My parents were also conservancy workers and I don’t want that future for my daughters or for anybody else. So, when I got to know about my rights, and about other women who lost a life partner in the sewers, I volunteered to help them out of the grief and find financial stability. Personally as well, I quit the housekeeping job and took out a loan to start a shop.”
However, her struggle not only involved leaving her housekeeping job to get a loan of Rs 20,000 and set up a shop near Indira Nagar, Chennai but also to educate both her daughters.
“I have two daughters, Saila (21) and Anandhi (19) and hope to see them do better in life and be independent. While Anandhi is completing school, Saila is studying in a private nursing college, the Sree Sastha College of Nursing in Chennai, which requires a lot of money, something which has been a constant struggle for us,” she shares.
It was at this juncture when she met Kavitha Muralidharan, a journalist who went out of her way to help.
“I met her in 2018 and had also read about her struggle in an article. Her daughter, Saila, is very bright and I wanted to help her. That is when I tweeted about it, and that garnered a lot of attention providing the family with the much-needed financial help,” says Kavitha.
Saila adds that the social media post helped them raise one year’s college fees that amount to almost Rs 1 lakh.
This year, Kavitha wrote another post on Twitter:
“I made this request on twitter last year to an overwhelming response. I am making it again. Nagammal, (the) widow of a manual scavenger, is struggling hard to educate her children. Shyla is in her last year of nursing course and has to still pay a fee of Rs 40,000 this month., of 1 lac.”
Owing to that, the family has already received Rs 30,000 and had somehow managed to pay Rs 50,000. They need Rs 20,000 more to make sure, Saila gets the education she deserves.
“My father wanted me to become a doctor. But, it wasn’t easy to do this without him. Although I managed to do well in Class 12 and set a record in my locality, my marks still weren’t high enough to pursue medicine. So, I took the next best option of nursing. Nobody in our area has ever done something like this, so if I succeed, it will be for my father. I want to help people through my work, but also educate them about families like ours. No one deserves to die the way my father did, and I want to make sure people know about it,” concludes Saila.
If you want to extend yo,ur help to Nagammal’s daughters and fund their education, please find their bank details below:
Name: Nagammal Y
Account Number: 64002005308
Branch Code: 40250
(Edited by Gayatri Mishra)