Tuesday, November 22, 2005


As I keep blabbering and boasting of my insignificant attempt at running a marathon, I thought I should also let everyone know about why the hell we do it!

Here is a story of a woman who stood up against all odds in life to stand behind a community....Siddamma recently won an award from Sonia gandhi for her stellar work. Asha austin supports her fellowship. You can read more about our association at Siddamma's fellowship

The following article was by Sanjeev for our second edition of the newletter.

Siddamma is a grassroots activist and an educator working with the marginalized Irula Tribals for the last 12 yrs. Knowing how it felt to belong to a marginalized section of the society was an early lesson for Siddamma after she was brutally attacked as a child by a bear. Though she managed to survive after 20 days in coma she had many facial and shoulder scars. As a young girl she had to suffer much discrimination and ridicule, but her mother did not let her quit school encouraging her to work even harder. Her experience made her determined to stand by those who were marginalized and gave her faith in education as an empowering tool.

In '93 as a young sociologist and educator for slum children she was exposed to the plight of the slum women who were suffering inequality, oppression and extortion and she stood up for their rights. This eventually let her to create Bharathi Trust (named in honor of Bharathiyaar, a poet and freedom fighter, who believed in equality and empowerment of all). Her work then took her among the Irula tribals.

The trust is now a people's movement covering over 50,000 people in four districts of Tamil Nadu. While there have been several provisions of employment available by the government for tribals, like the Irulas (ST), these were beyond the reach of the Irula children most of who did not go to school. They were first generation learners with little access to schools. But, beyond that even when they had access to schools, the children were discriminated against since the Irulas were not considered fit to be part of the mainstream.

Siddamma started motivational centers; places that made learning fun and using activity-based learning rekindled the joy of learning and instilled confidence in children. In three years the motivational centers integrate the children into the mainstream schools and continue to function as additional help centers for a couple of more years. Asha for Education partnered with Siddamma in this effort and over the last five years has supported 8 centers that are now in different stages of the above cycle. The first of these is ready to be closed, since there is no need for it anymore.

But not all that efforts are directed towards hope for a better tomorrow. Bharathi Trust also helps villagers organize themselves to represent themselves better in their struggle for basic rights. The initial effort was merely to receive minimum wages. It is not enough for small groups to stand for their rights but for the whole community to stand together. This was the birth of the Sarpam. Each village elects 5 members to the Sarpam who are accountable to their village. They do not represent any formal position in the government only bring all the Irula communities together to understand each others problems, learn from each other and stand by each other in their time of need. Bharathi Trust provided the leadership training and helped in creation of this transparent institution that truly represents the people. In getting organized many communities have been able to get their basic rights and villages have been transformed.

The transformation is most visible in the release of bonded laborers from the rice mills of Red Hills (just 30 km from Chennai). Last year there were 800 rice mills in this area with an estimated 10,000 Irula tribals who were bonded laborers. A mill was a closed fortress and only those who work in a mill were allowed in and all members of a family were never allowed to leave the mill at the same time. The entire family worked at the mill – the men and women did hard manual labor19 hrs a day and the children and the elderly were responsible for cleaning the mills. Three generations of families were working in these mills. A laborer was paid Rs. 13/day (minimum wages are Rs. 89/day) and this was defended as being legal since the mill owners were providing accommodation. The exploitation reached its apex when a woman was asked to work immediately after she gave birth to a child and she died of exhaustion. This led to some of the laborers escaping from the mills and seeing refuge with the Sarpam. The Sarpam had been investigating the living conditions in the rice mills indirectly by speaking to these workers when some came out of the mills. The mill owners reported the escape to the police who came to take these people back to the mills under the context of having to repay loans that the workers owed the owners. The workers are not provided any health insurance and if anyone falls ill the owner forwards a loan to pay for the medical expenses at a very high interest that builds up to a large amount in a very small time. This was the main reason most of the laborers were caught in the cycle of bonded labor. The local police and administration rejected the claim that they were bonded laborers and insisted that they pay the "loans" if they did not want to go back. This started the legal battle in court and the Sarpam's struggle to bring the burning issue to spotlight. Their struggle was joined in by the NAPM (National Alliance of People's Movements) and the International Women's Organization. Together they finally brought the issue to be discussed in the parliament. There have been many changes since then, the most brutal of owners were jailed and around 800 laborers have been released with a small package from the government. Many mills are now paying minimum wages and the Sarpam have been provided with passes to be able to enter any mill, examine and document the living conditions. Asha is again contributing its bit in supporting a school for the children of the released bonded laborers. For all her efforts Siddamma was awarded the Speak-Out award from outlook magazine.

Siddamma's most recent effort is in the creation of a village resource center. This center would not only help communities experiment with different modes of livelihood in primary production, but also provide a building ground to teach kids who have dropped out of the conventional system of education and make them self-reliant.

Asha Fellowships are provided to individuals who have a great potential to create social change and need support for their basic sustenance. Asha-Austin is proud to support Siddamma in her efforts towards a just society.

To learn more about Siddamma and her efforts please visit:
Siddamma's fellowship

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