Letchumanan’s story

Print edition : January 03, 2020

Letchumanan. Photo: R.K. Radhakrishnan

The year 1981 dawned with great hope for Letchumanan, a plantation Tamil who was looking for opportunities to make a better living. A school dropout, he moved from the plantations in the Central district of Sri Lanka to the capital Colombo. His needs grew with the size of his family, and the 600 Sri Lankan rupees he was making as a cook at the Cinnamon Garden police station, in the heart of Colombo, was just not enough. On January 2 that year, the Rehabilitation Cell of the Assistant High Commission of India in Sri Lanka, at Kandy, affixed its approval on a piece of paper, marking him out for repatriation from Sri Lanka to India as per the Shastri-Sirimavo Accord arrived at between India and Sri Lanka.

The letter, numbered “Kand/Rehab/58/79” read: To those whom it may concern: The family of Shri Letchumanan, s/o Ponnusamy, holding passport no. Y 010347 under the Indo-Ceylon Agreement, 1964, and Family Card No. K 074413, has been selected for employment/resettlement in Andhra Pradesh Corporation Spinning Mills. He is leaving for India on 6-1-81. He has been directed to buy tickets up to Mandapam Camp Railway Station and approach the Special Deputy Collector (R), Mandapam Camp, for guidance and necessary action. The family consists of 1 adult and is eligible for payment of journey allowance.” The letter was signed by the Second Secretary (Rehabilitation).

At the spinning mill in Chirala, he was told that he would be paid Rs.3.15 a day as wages. Six months later came a bigger jolt: He and the 225 families who had made Chirala their home were told one morning that the spinning mill would be shut for the next six months. Letchumanan fell back on his cooking skills, and somehow pulled through.

At the end of that disastrous decade, Letchumanan approached the Office of the Rehabilitation Commissioner in Chennai. His inquiries with the office revealed that he was eligible for a loan of Rs.5,000 and that the money would be sanctioned by the provincial government authority in charge of revenue-related issues in Chennai district, the District Collector. Letchumanan applied for the loan, and then went each day for the next five years to the Collector’s office. The follow-up worked finally and his loan was sanctioned.

Since visiting the office was a daily chore, he found work at one of the many tea-shops at the main government office complex of the State, Ezhilagam, the sprawling complex near Marina beach where the Rehabilitation Commissioner’s office was located. The Collector’s office was then on the same premises (subsequently, it was shifted out to a separate building a few kilometres away). He kept the job at the shop until the loan came through. The shop owner also allowed him to sleep in his shop for the years he spent in Ezhilagam. He sometimes slept at a station nearby, the Chepauk Mass Rapid Transit station.

Despite the loan, Letchumanan could not carry on with the operation for more than three years because of failing health. Now, the next problem: Letchumanan had deposited with the office the few original documents he had: his Indo-Sri Lanka passport and the family card. The office insisted that if he had deposited the documents with it, then the office would have given an acknowledgement to that effect. Letchumanan went back multiple times to the office to meet officials at various levels to plead with them to get back the documents. He repeatedly told them that he was not given the documents back.

The government of Tamil Nadu finally returned the documents in 2014, a full 20 years after he had asked for them!

Letchumanan faced the problem that all homeless people everywhere face. He did not have an address. Just like anywhere else, it was impossible to get any identity document made in the absence of a permanent address. He has also been missing from the Chepauk MRTS station, where he “stayed”, for over six months now. The CAB has the potential to create thousands of Letchumanans.

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