Over the past several months, multiple female sanitation workers at Coonoor in the Nilgiris district of Tamil Nadu have accused a town panchayat official of sexual harassment. Yet, the Jegathala town panchayat has refused to act against the official. In August, some even filed complaints with the panchayat office, alerting officials about the sexual harassment. Since no action has been taken against the man, the sanitation workers — represented by Nilgiris Sanitation Workers Self Respect Trade Union — have now written to the Nilgiris district collector, requesting the suspension of the official concerned. They are waiting for a response.
Speaking to TNM, A Karpagam, the head of the women’s wing of the union, said that a permanent employee of the Jegathala panchayat is in charge of supervising the work done by the 15 odd female sanitation workers. “Over the years, several women have complained that this man has behaved inappropriately with them, including calling them to the office at odd hours when nobody is around, getting their personal contact details and forcing them to speak to him. There were a few widows among the sanitation workers, and they too have experienced inappropriate and predatory behaviour from this man,” Karpagam alleged.
According to Nilgiris Sanitation Workers Self Respect Trade Union, which heard multiple accounts of the female civic workers, the women were being paid different wages for doing the same work based on his whim, and that they were being made to work long hours. “Some of the complainants said that he asked them to report to the office after their day’s work. Their area of work is 3 kilometres away from the office and they will have to walk to the office in the evening for no particular reason. He would just say, ‘I wanted to see you before you left after work’,” Karpagam alleged.
On August 25, the Nilgiris Sanitation Workers Self Respect Trade Union contacted a local party called the Dravida Thamizhar Katchi, which, in turn, filed the complaint with the executive officer of the panchayat office. The panchayat then convened two meetings with the sanitation workers. During the two meetings, the panchayat officials allegedly tried to convince the women to withdraw the complaint, and even took letters from them, stating that the supervisor had not harassed them in any way. TNM has accessed the letter.
Speaking to TNM, Raees Mohammed, founder of Dalit Camera and general secretary of the Nilgiris Sanitation Workers Self Respect Trade Union, who was involved in fighting for rights of these women civic workers, said, “Previously, we had filed complaints with the Executive Officer of the panchayat. The complainants had requested a change in their supervisor. Although the Panchayat office did replace their supervisor, the man continued to work in the office, in different roles. He also continued to harass the women. Not only was no action taken against him, the panchayat also made the women submit letters stating that he did not harass them,” he alleged.
According to Raees, the women were not offered help by the Panchayat as they were not permanent staff of the urban local body, but temporary workers from a self-help group. “They (Panchayat) told us to file a complaint with the local police if we wanted action to be taken against the accused official,” Raees added.
The group has now written to the Nilgiris District Collector J Innocent Dhivya, seeking a correction of wages for the sanitation workers, prompt payment of wages and most importantly to issue an official probe into the actions of the supervisor in a manner that does not affect the work of any of the sanitation workers. The group is yet to receive a response from the Collector’s office regarding the complaint.
Speaking to TNM, the Executive Officer of the Jegathala Town Panchayat alleged, “Based on the earlier complaint, we had inquired about the issue and found that the allegations were baseless. The sanitation workers themselves had written letters to the panchayat, stating the accused man had not sexually harassed them. Now they have moved the District Collector, it is upto the higher authorities to initiate a second probe or take relevant action.