Twenty years ago, the Irular community in four districts of Tamil Nadu did not send their children to school. Many of these kids were working as bonded labourers. But things started changing when a social activist, Kari Sidamma, began working with the community.
Today, most of the Irular children attend school regularly. “Earlier, the parents used to keep shifting seasonally for work, because of which the child could never study in a school. Now, while some children have to move, we try to identify them and help them get an education,” says Kari Sidamma.
61-year-old Kari Sidamma hails from Karnataka, and was one of the 11 children in her house. At the age of eight, she lost an eye and her nose in a wild bear attack. And that incident made made her to pursue studies more seriously, she says.
“My mother was very strong and she used to always encourage me to study well,” Kari Sidamma says.
She finished her Masters in Sociology in Bengaluru and then moved to Chennai for work. Here, she worked for a women’s group. “That was the place where I understood that women went through so many difficulties. I saw many cases in which women were killed for dowry,” she recalls.
In 1990, the Irular community approached Kari Sidamma while she was working for the women’s group. “A woman from the Irular community asked for help because she did not want to work for a landlord. He was not paying her and she was working long hours. When she asked for proper wages, she was partially burnt by the landlord,” narrates Kari.
Kari then visited the woman in her village, and later began working with the community seeing how the Irular were treated. “Most of the women in the Irular community were not respected and were harassed by the landlords when they worked in the fields. Moreover, the Irular women did not know about their rights,” she says.
The activist has worked in 60 villages in Thiruvallur, Vellore, Cuddalore and Krishnagiri district for the Irular community. She started a trust named Bharathi Trust and also formed ‘Sarpam’, an organisation where Irular women work as community leaders at the district, taluk and village levels. “We work through these community leaders and they communicate their problems and issues to us,” she says.
In the beginning, working with the community was not easy. As a woman, she wasn’t taken seriously by either the police or the landlords. But slowly, her standing grew.
Recalling one of the first cases she worked on, Kari Sidamma talks about the time she went to the police station to seek justice for members of the Irular community who were beaten up. The police and the landlords claimed that the Irular had stolen something from the landlord’s house, and beat them up on this pretext.
“The bodies of the Irular people were swollen,” she says. “But now, police or landlords cannot do such a thing with the Irular community. The change came after we took the bonded labour issue to the government, and it was later discussed in the Parliament,” Kari says.
Today, none of the people from the Irular community in these villages work as bonded labourers.
“All of them are being paid for their work regularly and much more than before. They are not working for long hours and we keep a check on the places where they work,” she says.
Through the decades, Kari Sidamma has been asked to be careful while she worked with the community, as there was threat of attack and retaliation. Even the police have warned her to keep safe.
But for this woman activist, work comes before fear. “I’ve always told the people who ask me to be careful that I’m ready to die. It will be a meaningful death,” Kari says.