Faded fingerprints fail dhobis at PDS shops in Tamil Nadu

The white, spick and span look of the local politicians can be attributed to these dhobis.
Dhobis in Tiruchy showing their worn-out palms
Dhobis in Tiruchy showing their worn-out palms | MK Ashok Kumar

TIRUCHY : It’s a hot summer day in Alagiripuram by the banks of Kollidam river in Tiruchy. Standing knee-deep in water, M Ganesan rinses a cloth, wrings it and throws it on to a pile of damp clothes kept in a bucket near him. Hundreds of dhobis like M Ganesan, who live in Alagiripuram are battling a unique challenge.

They struggle to get essential items from ration shops as the scanner does not register their fingerprints (dhobis often lose their fingerprints due to the chemicals used in washing). The discharge of untreated sewage into the stream and fewer job opportunities for their children are the other pressing issues the dhobis deal with year in, year out.

Over 300 dhobi families live at Alagiripuram, a place resembling collective penury, as almost all of them eke out a living by washing clothes. Only in the recent decades has the settlement seen graduates emerging but they are unable to find suitable jobs. They have lost their fingerprints due to hours of washing away dirt from clothes, using chemicals with bare hands, every day for years. With the same worn-out fingers, they are poised to press the EVM button on April 19 in hope that their vote will bring about a change in their lives.

When asked about their expectations from the new government, M Ganesan said, “For all of us, there is one big problem that is spoiling our livelihoods and health for the past 23 years—Discharge of untreated sewage into the Kollidam by the Tiruchy corporation.”

Every day, around 8 am, dhobis take all the laundry load knotted in bundles to the thin stream flowing through the Kollidam. They wash the clothes and dry them till evening. Later, they take the dried clothes to their houses to iron and ready them for delivery the next day.

“On rainy days and whenever water flows into the Kollidam, sewage get mixed with water. They should treat sewage first and then discharge it. Also, the discharge place can be further downstream from our place,” Ganesan added.

“It is the politicians who help us whenever the Kollidam is in spate. They support us by providing food. Also, during the birthdays of political leaders, they distribute iron boxes free of cost,” said Mari Sivanandam, a washerwoman.

But S Eswari has a different view. At present, they get money from the private lenders to buy iron boxes as their cost ranges from Rs 7,000 to Rs 9,000 a piece.

“The government should formulate a policy to distribute free iron boxes to the dhobi families every year,” she said.

M Parvathi, who was seen washing white clothes worn by politicians, wants the new government to create more job opportunities. “My two sons have graduated. One is working in a college for Rs 7,000 and another is a dhobi,” she said. “We are sending our younger generation to school and colleges but where are job opportunities for them? PM Narendra Modi promised creation of two crore jobs a year. What is the point in providing education without job opportunities?” asked a visibly upset Ganesan.

On losing out on rations, Eswari said, “Whenever I go to the ration shop, the scanner fails to read my fingerprint. So, I have to take my school-going daughter with me for her fingerprints. Because of this, her studies are getting affected and I am not getting the ration in time. Even to get the Pongal gift hamper, I had to struggle a lot.”

Similarly, every dhobi family in Alagiripuram has to rely on the fingerprints of younger generation to get essential items from the ration shop. “At least for us, the government should come up with some alternatives. Otherwise, buying ration items will remain a problem,” said Parvathi.

The white, spick and span look of the local politicians can be attributed to these dhobis. Perhaps, the time has come for the politicians to turn the tide and repay them.

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