40 years of fighting over 15 rupees a month!4 min read
Udupi: “My kids would see other children celebrate and play on festival holidays. During festivals all I could do for them was to stitch a dress for my oldest daughter and my other two daughters would also wear it later.” By now Akku’s emotions had taken over the straight face she maintained while explaining her struggle. It is the struggle of more than 40 years, the struggle that has consumed more than half her life.
Surviving on Rs. 15 a month for four decades, Akku’s and Leela’s life has itself become a struggle. While Leela still remains reluctant to talk about it, Akku does not mind the constant back and forth volleys with journalists. “There is nothing for me to lose by speaking out now,” she manages to say after recovering from the emotional grip.
After her mother’s demise Akku had replaced her as a sweeper at Government Teacher’s Training Institute in Udupi sometime in 1971. Soon she was joined by Leela and together they cleaned the 12 latrines and toilets and swept 21 classrooms in the institute. They were promised that their service would soon be regularised and will then receive their full salary. Not for lack of trying, till now, neither is their job regularised nor did they receive anything more than the additional monthly Rs. 65 from the contingency fund.
All this while, Akku looked after her five children and an asthmatic husband with less than Rs 100 a month. But back in 2001, the Government decided to cut off that aid as well.
When the women filed a petition with the help of Human Rights Protection Foundation (HRPF), Udupi with the Karnataka Administrative Tribunal (KAT) in 2001, the Education Department stopped their salary altogether. The two Dalit women still carried on with their work at the institute despite all this. “If I can’t work here, where else can I go? We’ve been trying to get our full salary for so long; we can’t bring ourselves to leave even now,” Akku explains her position.
In July 2003, the Government was directed by KAT to consider the regularisation of the women’s services within 90 days. After not receiving the slightest of action from the Government for over a year, Akku and Leela filed contempt proceedings only to prompt the Education Department to appeal to the Karnataka High Court (HC) against KAT’s order. Even though the High Court gave the same decision which later found resonance in the order from the Supreme Court of India in 2010, the Government authorities still mulls over its options.
Akku and Leela still wait for their due, the State Government owes them over Rs. 11 lakh each. They are uncertain about the consequences of their fight as Akku is now even denied to work further by the Government as she has crossed the retirement age of the post she was never sanctioned. The two women have gained some support in their fight if nothing else. The HRPF has helped them with the filing of the petitions following through each time the Government responds unfavourably and also tries to garner as much attention to the issue through maximum coverage in local and national dailies. “One of the clerks who worked in the institute told me there is a (Human Rights) group in Mangalore or Udupi, talk to the man there, Shanbhag, he will listen. That is how Shanbhag sir got involved in this.” Akku talks about Dr. Ravindranath Shanbhag, Founder and President of the HRPF in whom lays the utmost amount of trust and respect.
There reports in the media gathered many people willing to help financially but the two would not receive any kind of charity. They also refused to take money from the teachers who witnessed their struggle to make their post permanent. Akku insisted that she will not take money for work she hasn’t done. Eventually, she was employed by two of them as a maid and received a sustainable amount of money to cater to the demands of her family.
The battle she is waging looms large just like the banyan tree behind her. She does her best not to be overwhelmed by the size and superiority of the authorities she is fighting against but still shies away from the camera when requested for a picture.
Well intentioned reporters wanting to inform the public about the misgivings of the Government visit her regularly while she gets used to the sudden interest in her story. Meanwhile she continues to visit the institute, looking for friendly company in a place she spent over half her life.
Sub-edited by Priyanka Sharma
The conversation was translated to the reporter by Venumadhav Bhat