Follow us on


Silent tragedy

Print edition : Oct 08, 2010 T+T-
Subrabharathi Manian. His writings espouse the cause of the poor.-K. ANANTHAN

Subrabharathi Manian. His writings espouse the cause of the poor.-K. ANANTHAN

THE greatest tragedy of Tirupur, the erstwhile bastion of the leftist and trade union movements in western Tamil Nadu, is that the class consciousness of the workers, more particularly the migrant labour in the garment industry, has been blunted and they are being pushed into the drudgery of a monotonous, dull and mechanical life, says Subrabharathi Manian, a member of the Sahitya Akademi Advisory Board, who in his writings espouses the cause of the poor and the marginalised, particularly the migrant labourers in the garment industry.

Talking to Frontline, he expressed anguish at reports on suicides and attempts to commit suicide by migrant workers and their family members. Many migrant workers in the garment industry, who alienate themselves from the trade unions in a bid to earn more through hard work, ultimately slip into depression the moment they realise that they have been drawn into an illusory world of prosperity, he said.

According to him, the worst hit among the migrants are single parents and their children. He recalled how he, along with his parents, migrated to Tirupur five decades ago, when he was hardly 10 years old, from his native Segadanthaazhi village. For hundreds of families in Segadanthaazhi and a few other villages in the area, Tirupur's fledgling hosiery industry offered hope .

Manian learnt a lot about the travails of migrant labourers when he was an employee of the Telecom Department in Hyderabad for eight years, until 1993. The labourers, most of them from southern Tamil Nadu looking for work in Andhra Pradesh, inspired his first novel, Matrum Silar (And a Few Others), in 1989. Issues such as inter-State river water disputes, which posed a formidable challenge to national integration, provoked him to pen Sudu Manal (Hot Sand) in 1992.

When he returned to Tirupur in 1994 he was stunned by the growth of the knitwear industry, which had started earning foreign exchange to the tune of Rs.10,000 crore. But soon he was able to see the other side of the Dollar City, with 30,000 children employed in the hosiery industry. Beside, the release of untreated effluents into the Noyyal river, the lifeline of Tirupur, by dyeing units added to the agony of the farming community.

As a socially conscious writer committed to socialism and democracy, Manian wielded his pen against the evil practice of child labour and the pollution of the Noyyal. His novel Saayathirai (The Coloured Curtain), published in 1994, described the devastating effect of effluents from dyeing factories on the cultural and economic life of the people. Translated into English, Hindi, Malayalam and Kannada, the novel won the appreciation of the literary world. A recipient of the katha award for the best short story writer' and the Tamil Nadu government's award for best novel', he has authored 30 works, including seven novels, 13 short story collections and a travelogue.

It was a sad reality that activists of different political parties in Tirupur were prepared to discuss everything under the sun but carefully skirted issues such as child labour, labour rights and protection of the environment. Marxism helped him to see things from a different perspective. Along with a few NGOs, he and his friends in the progressive literary circles launched an awareness campaign on child labour and environment protection. However, he made it clear that they were not opposed to industrial development or science and technology.

They were disheartened by the lukewarm response from the people and the industry but saw light at the end of the tunnel in the form of pressure on the exporters from buyers. This forced the exporters to adopt mechanisms such as social audits, including ISO 9000 and Social Accountability 8000, to ensure labour standards and eco-friendly garments, he said. The media forced the government to intervene, he added.

Though child labour was no longer in vogue in the big export units, it was still practised at the sub-contract level and by some of the units producing knitwear for the domestic market, said Manian. Exporters now responded to issues relating to pollution, and corporate social responsibility and fair trade practices were among the issues that were widely discussed in the town, said Manian.

Large-scale influx of migrant workers added a new dimension to Tirupur's problems. These first-generation workers are mostly single men or women and they tire themselves out when still young.

Manian said government agencies, exporters, trade unions, political parties and intellectuals should put their heads together to evolve a strategy to ensure that the garment labourers were treated humanely. Writers had a key role to play in this regard, he concluded.

S. Dorairaj