Priyamani: A Phoenix from the ashes

From being a bonded labourer for 25 years to panchayat chief, Priyamani has come a long way fighting odds
In her capacity as panchayat president, Priyamani had relaid roads and provided piped water connection to all households in Adigathur village
In her capacity as panchayat president, Priyamani had relaid roads and provided piped water connection to all households in Adigathur village(Photo | Express)

CHENNAI: A dry mill and dusty air settling all around are an integral part of Priyamani’s childhood memories. She remembers how her parents, hailing from the vulnerable Irular tribe, worked in one rice mill after another, the clatter of machinery being her lone lullaby.

“My parents toiled away their entire lives in the mill. My father died in the rice mill after being bit by a snake,” recalls the 43-year-old woman who now serves as the president of Adigathur village panchayat in Kadambathur block of Tiruvallur district.

In her tenure of four years as panchayat president, M Priyamani has been a voice for the voiceless, working to better living conditions at the Irular colony within the village. Having spent the first decade of her life grinding away in mills, Priyamani cannot remember when exactly she began working. But even as a child, she was not sent to school. Rather, she was expected to work in the mill, falling prey to a vicious cycle of bonded labour that has oppressed Irulars for generations.

The cycle is triggered when they take loans from moneylenders (mostly caste Hindus). Unable to repay the loans, these moneylenders force the man into labour for life. However, it does not end here. The practice is passed on to the descendants of the borrower, enslaving generations. Often, three to four members would have to work for `40 per day. The horrible stories of the past still find resonance.

Soon, Priyamani married another bonded labourer and had three children. For 25 years of her life, she was trapped in one mill after another until 2006, when revenue officials rescued the family.

After they were rescued, the couple and their kids settled down in Adigathur on land provided by the government and started working as agricultural labourers. “After we were rescued, the simple joy of being able to sleep at night meant a lot to us. We were relieved that we need not anymore work for more than 20 hours to earn a meagre income,” she said.

With a chuckle, Priyamani recalls how her entry into politics was accidental. Her son was the initial contender. However certain local politicians who had handpicked members from the community to run for the post threatened the family. That’s when Priyamani herself decided to run for the post.

Even though she won, Priyamani recounts that it was not an easy run. “During the early days of my service, numerous complaints about ganja peddling arose, prompting me to take action by filing a complaint. This led to the arrest of an accused, but it also led to me being threatened. But, as people witnessed my genuine efforts to improve the village, they began treating me with respect.”

The villagers, especially those in the Irular colony, say that they are happy that their long-pending issues were solved after Priyamani became panchayat president. “We used to suffer power outages before. She pressured the authorities to add another line after which we get regular supply. While there was only one pipe for each street before, we are getting piped water connections in our homes now,” said R Chithra, a resident of Irular colony.

She has ensured roads were laid, piped water connections were provided to every household and patta was distributed to more than 60 families. Priyamani has also helped self-help groups to start new businesses. “She adopted a resolution and gave us land in the village for our herbal garden. We are now producing various herbal products and earning a good profit from it,” said Vasantha, a self-help group member.

Priyamani urges people to turn around their lives any time. “I have never gone to school. But my dedication to solving people’s issues enables me to do it. I always walk to the panchayat office so that people can inform me their issues like water and sewage problems. I make sure I resolve them.”

(Edited by Mary Catherene)

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