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Sumangali Thittam (Camp Coolie System) – Origins of Sumangali

Sumangali Thittam (Camp Coolie System) - Origins of Sumangali

Having tasted the benefits of using women, to replace men to work in the mills, the ever so greedy mill owners devised a more sinister plan to lure younger and younger women, as contractual slaves. Girls aged 12 to 18 were the primary targets this time. With a promise of paying 80 to 120 rupees per day and bonus amount of 40,000 to 1,00,000 on the fulfilment of the contractual period of 3-6 years. This amount looked very attractive for the poor improvised families. This scheme in which a meager amount is paid as salary and a final lump sum amount which could be used for the marriage dowry of the young girls was named (Sumangali Thittam)

An agreement under “Industrial disputes act -1947, Roll No: 18-(1)” would be signed between the workers and the mill management and the girls will be made to work for the stipulated contractual period of 3-6 years. What happens during these years is beyond any imagination.

Origins of Sumangali Scheme in Tamilnadu

The southern districts of Tamilnadu are generally drought prone. With the traditional agriculture system dependent on ever failing monsoon rains, families of traditionally agriculture and agricultural dependent land less laborers often face extreme situations and perpetual poverty. Girls are considered as liability, and oftentimes it was a social practice to systematically cull girl child after birth. Education for girls was deemed unnecessary waste and most girls were married off as child brides with dowry. The practice of dowry by the bride to the groom is a cultural necessity in these areas.

Capitalizing on existing situations such as illiterate parents, treatment of girl child as a liability and the compulsion of need to give hefty dowry to get the daughters married off, the spinning mill owners devised a new novel scheme of enticing the parents to send their young daughters 12 years  of age and above to work in the spinning mills for a period of 3-6 years, the mills promised food and accommodation for the duration and to pay a lump sum amount at the end of the contractual period. The lump sum amount would be used to pay the dowry of the young girl who would have finished her contractual period at the age of 18-19 years of age.  The end contract bonus would range anything from 30,000 rupees to 1, 00,000. But the wages or stipend would be far less than what is paid to other regular workers, (much less than the minimum wages regulated by the government of India).

This scheme popularly known as Sumangali Thittam (Sumangali= Married woman) also come under different names, such as Mangalya Thittam, Thiruirumagal thirumana Thittam etc… Though there are several names they all follow the same principle and mean the same.

From the perspective of the illiterate parents, this offer from mill owners seemed to be a win-win situation where the burden of responsibility of the daughters is taken away from them, suddenly the parents need not worry about their daughter’s education, and the dowry money to get their daughters married off. For the girls thought they had no say in the matter. In most cases the recruiting agents of the spinning mills target girls from broken families, dalit, minority girls from poor, illiterate families or anyone who don’t have a voice to question the motives or the treatments of the girls once signed into the contract to avoid future complications. These agents encourage the parents to pull their daughters away from school and to send them to the mills. An added convenience of no legal liability for the mills to employ girls 14 years and above enables the spinning mills to recruit girls with no impunity.

Some of the realities in the spinning mills

  1. Girls, 12 years and above are often given fake names and age by the mills to avoid identification and confrontation
  2. The girls are given salaries far below the government stipulated wage (Minimum wages act 1948)
  3. The working hours range from 10-14 hours with no overtime pay. Lunch break is generally 30 minutes. Toilet breaks are frowned upon.
  4. The girls do not have access to any employees benefit such as PF, ESI, and other entitlements.
  5. The girls are not allowed to take casual leave, medical leave allowed only on extreme situations and the girls are not permitted to leave the factory premises.
  6. Food provided in the factory lacks nutrition value and the same kind of food is repeated day in and day out.
  7. Average living space is about 10 square feet per person. 10- Girls have to share a dorm of 100 square feet. The toilets are about 2 toilets for 100 girls.
  8. Almost all girls are subjected to some form of abuse. Verbal abuse used to be very common, and now, physical and sexual abuse is also become very common phenomenon.
  9. Girls are forced to work with fast moving machineries, accidents too become quite common, and when accidents happen, the girls are forced to declare that the cause of the accident is slipping off the bathroom or something similar.
  10. Long working hours, lack of sleep, extreme concentration for long durations etc. are some of the common workplace conditions in the spinning mills.
  11. In the past 10 years there are more number of deaths reported among girls working in spinning mills than all other sectors put together. Most of these deaths are registered as suicide and suspicious deaths. None of the postmortem report explained the facts of death in the textile history that the doctors and the law enforcement are well paid by the mill management. If the victim continues to be strong with the union in fighting legally then the victim also will be paid by the management that they draw from the case.
  12. Majority of the female employees in textile mills are from Dalit, Backward, and Minority, illiterate rural populace who don’t have any social, political or economic strength.