January 15, 2001


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The Rediff Special/Ramesh Menon

The Negotiator
The Negotiator

Countless flashbulbs went off almost simultaneously. Chinnapillai blinked in discomfort and clutched her sari closer, even as she tried to cope with the attention. The Vigyan Bhavan hall in New Delhi filled with thunderous applause as the women gathered there exulted for her. There were some moist eyes in the audience. Eyes that had seen Chinnapillai for the first time.

Chinnapillai comes from a small village called Pulliseri which is tucked into the Madurai district of Tamil Nadu. She is one of the five recipients of the Streeshakti award, awarded annually by the Union human resources development ministry in recognition of the pioneering work done by women in India. Though most of her compatriots would not recognise her, she has, over the last many years, been quietly organising poor and illiterate agricultural labourers of Tamil Nadu.

Chinnapillai, though, was uncomfortable with what was happening. Yet, she had taken the trouble to wear her best sari and her only pair of rubber Hawaii slippers -- wornout as they were -- in honour of the occasion. This was why she had, for the first time, travelled so far from home. It was the first time she was to see Atal Bihari Vajpayee face-to-face.

Which could be why she was overwhelmed when she saw him on the dais. She bent down to touch his feet. What happened next came as a complete shock to her. The prime minister of India, moved by her simplicity, touched her feet instead.

It was something Chinnapillai, who has been working in the fields in and around Pulliseri for nearly 40 years, was not used to. In fact, if you ever spotted a 50-year-old woman wading knee-deep though slushy fields as she went about her job of transplanting rice seedlings, you would slot her as another weatherbeaten labourer. And you would not be wrong!

It could be the reason why the hype in New Delhi did not touch her. All she wanted was to get back. To her fields. To her job as a labourer where she earned between Rs 30 and Rs 50 a day. To her friends who worked with her in organising the womenfolk, so that they would see a better day. Delhi and its ostentatiousness made her uncomfortable.

Also, back home there was hardly any winter. Here, the cold was getting to her bones. She did not even have a good shawl to protect her. Though the government did give her Rs 100,000 and a citation, it put her up in a cheap guesthouse where water seeped through the walls. It made the cold all the more unbearable.

Not that she was complaining. Back home, she lived in a thatched hut. Sometimes, when it rained outside, it rained inside too. Yet, her main concern had always been to get better wages and working conditions for her fellow labourers. It has been so for over 35 years now.

It all began because her co-workers discovered she was a good negotiator.

In her village, like in many others, farm workers -- who normally belonged to the lower castes -- would band themselves into little groups before they offered their services to the farmers, landlords and job contractors. Chinnapillai would always manage to convince the farmer that better wages not only meant a better quality of labour -- it also meant the job would get done much faster. It was not an easy task. The landlords were initially dismissive of her efforts. But she persevered until, finally, they understood what she was saying. And, with that, came loyalty and respect -- both from the landlords and her co-workers.

Her particular talent was soon spotted by an NGO called the Dhan Foundation. They were promoting a movement for women labourers that they had christened Kalanjiam (the word, in Tamil, means both granary and prosperity). Chinnapillai joined Kalanjiam as an ordinary member in 1989 and worked hard to develop individual groups at the village level. As her work began to be recognised, she graduated to becoming a member of Kalanjiam's 13 member executive committee.

She keeps underlining the fact that she is not the movement's only leader; there are many others. She also feels each member should be given due credit since Kalanjiam's success is based on the fact that it is a community organisation. Moreover, she hates the publicity she has been inundated with after this particular trip. She believes it would only serve to destroy the movement's energy.

After five years, Chinnapillai will step aside to let another woman lead Kalanjiam. The idea is to create the opportunity and the space that will allow others to contribute to the process of change. She is proud of how the movement has grown: It now has 69,033 members divided into 4,521 groups in 15 districts in Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Pondicherry. All the members hail from backward areas. Each group works towards empowering its members; it ensures they are not exploited and that they develop new skills. Each group functions independently, looking at local needs and realities and focusing on the poorest of the poor.

Every day, each member sets aside a handful of rice to be used by the group whenever there is a community lunch or when some member needs food. She also contributes Rs 11 annually to support the expansion of the movement to new areas. This roughly adds up to Rs 600,000.

Together, these women have mobilised savings that has now crossed Rs 1 million. This money circulates within the organisation's members as loans, thereby protecting them from the hazard of approaching a moneylender. The members mostly use these loan amounts to generate income, to build a house, to promote a small business or for other micro-credit needs. Since they are both organised and disciplined, both banks and government organisations also look upon such groups with respect.

Kalanjiam also addresses community issues. Take, for example, fishing.

In the past, powerful landlords were normally allotted the fishing contracts for the Pullicheri village pond. This was the accepted norm until the day Chinnapillai began wondering why the poorer people, particularly the women, never got the contract. One day, she marched her group to the collector's office and told him that, just because they were poor, that did not mean they could not bid for the contract. He was only too happy to encourage them.

But the landlord did not like losing the contract. Besides having powerful political connections, he also was an influential man in the village. He hit back by denying them work in the fields. Chinnapillai was not intimidated. Her group began to look for work outside the village; there were enough people willing to employ them. The message was loud and clear: Being poor did not mean they were weak. Today, pisiculture is another source of income for the Kalanjiam women.

The next challenge was religion. Earlier, only the rich, upper caste landlords were allowed to welcome Lord Vishnu's annual procession that came from Algarkovil to Madurai. The Kalanjiams wanted to know why the poor labourers, who were also the Lord's devotees, could not welcome it. It was a question no one could answer. As a result, Kalanjiam members now proudly welcome the procession. They do not consider caste a factor. Which is why, one year, a Muslim leader welcomed the procession. She said she represented the poor labourers. No one had any objection.

Chinnapillai does not know how to read. Her writing skills are limited to signing her name in Tamil. But, as she learnt to empower herself and other women, to fight corrupt politicians, officials, landlords, moneylenders and callous bankers, she saw her confidence grow. As she moved from district to district, her perspectives broadened. "We started as a small informal group that collectively bargained for our daily wages," she recalls. "Now, we have graduated into a movement. The challenge is to spread it to all southern states. Now, we have to reach out to people who are poorer than us."

Photographs: Sondeep Shankar/Saab Press. Design: Dominic Xavier

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