The success story of 354 women who struggled for 24 days to make sure that they receive a fair deal for their daily toil.
When the dalit women of Pulidindi village began their struggle, little did they realize that they were going to make a quantum jump in their wages. these dalit women of Konaseema found themselves at the forefront of the struggle, that too when everyone in the state thought that their wages would be among the highest, being in the most fertile region of the state. What they have achieved could perhaps is only the beginning of things to come in the development of the Dalit Bahujans in Andhra Pradesh.
Konaseema area is the most fertile land in Andhra Pradesh, situated at the delta of the mighty Godavari river. Here anything grows at any time of the year because of the abundance of water. Yet in some of the villages the daily wages are abysmally low, a paltry 40 rupees a day.
The dalit women of Pulidindi village, in Athreyapuram Mandal, realized that the wages they were receiving were not adequate. With the prices of food and other essential commodities spiralling high, they decided to demand better wages. As no farmer listened to their timid pleas, they grew bolder and finally decided to strike work from 19th July this year. Soon the rest of the village got galvanised into action and joined the dalit women. They had been asking for just a pittance, an increase of Rs. 10.00 a day. The farmers were merciless and refused.
On the 6th day they approached People`s Action for Rural Awakening (PARA) for support and guidance. Mr. Yosebu, PARA staff and the District Coordinator of the Dalit Bahujan Shramik Union – AP, responded immediately along with the union members. They hiked the demand to the legal minimum wages, viz. Rs. 139.00 per day. Even as the strike got prolonged, the Union supported the people to the hilt. 18th August, 21st day of the struggle, saw negotiations in the labour office at Kothapeta, 28 kilometres from the village. The people went in big numbers in hired vehicles to participate in the negotiations. But the big land lords kept away. The next meeting on 19th August was at the Pulidindi Panchayat itself in the presence of the Assist Labour Commissioner. A third round of negotiations took place on 20th August in the presence of the Mandal Revenue Officer, again ineffective because the big land lords refused to participate.
On 21st August, on the 24th day of the strike, people were indeed getting desperate, being without work and wages for so long. The farmers were still refusing to listen to them and come to a compromise. The government failed them in not supporting them or providing work under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, the flagship programme of the UPA government. Now the activists and DBSU-AP leaders in the state capital, Hyderabad, swung into action – to pressurise the state government to act, the labour department to ensure minimum wages and the department of Rural Development to implement NREGA.
On 21st the negotiations went on beyond midnight with the women becoming very vocal about their demands. They were determined to clinch the deal at all costs. Their leader at one point shamed the farmers to pay at least half the legal minimum wage – a mere seventy rupees. What began as a demand of just Rs. 10.00 a day now rose to Rs. 30/-. The people were happy because they got far more than they had initially bargained for, a hefty 75% increase at one go. In absolute terms, if they work for 300 days a year, this was an increase of Rs. 9000.00 per person or 40 lakhs for the village union. You can imagine the difference when they will begin to get their legal minimum wage of Rs. 139.00 per day, double the present wage. Evidently no government scheme or welfare programmes of NGOs can equal this just and dignified gain of the women.
The dalit women clinched their victory as the feast of the Queenship of Mary was dawning. These victorious women sang Mary`s song in their own way: “The Lord puts forth his arm in strength… He casts the mighty from their seats and raises the lowly.“ The traditionally powerful landlords rued the day they refused the first demand for only Rs. 10/- a day. The labour and revenue officials left the scene in shame because they did not do their duty, viz. to enforce minimum wages. They have also reason to fear. As the struggle goes on, demands will escalate, and action will have to be taken against them for gross neglect of duty.
The good news has now spread to neighbouring villages where the dalits were waiting anxiously for the outcome of this struggle at Pulidindi. They initial success has boosted their morale and is already spurring them on to make the same demands in their villages. The demands will be scaled up seeking the implementation of minimum wages to the full and assured employment under NREGA.