Sitting in the front porch of her three-room house, 65-year-old Leela Challa makes no effort to hide her tears. But it’s in the smile she shares with Akku Sherigara, 63, that lies the story of these two women of Udupi in Karnataka’s coastal district and their 42-year fight.
On July 4, the Supreme Court gave a final warning to the state government to pay Akku and Leela the dues owed to them in salaries and entitlements. That could amount to Rs 30 lakh each — or more than 100 times what they have individually earned in four decades, working as temporary labourers, for a monthly salary of Rs 15. For 13 of those years, they worked without any pay.
Their job involved cleaning the 21 toilets at the government-run Women Teachers’ Training Institute (WTTI) in Udupi every day — without leave, perks or benefits. They finally stopped working in December 2013. Last month, Leela suffered a paralytic stroke and can no longer use her left hand.
Despite repeated assurances, the management at WTTI never regularised their jobs, says the president of the NGO Human Rights Protection Foundation (HRPF), Ravindranath Shanbhag, who has assisted the two in their legal battles.
Akku, who lives in Kannarpady, remembers the June 1971 day she went to the WTTI to claim the pension of her mother Sheshi, who had worked there from 1921 till she died that year, for Rs 3 a month. The officials asked Akku, then 21, whether she would like to take up her mother’s job.
“The officials said they didn’t owe my mother any pension but offered me her job for Rs 15 per month. They assured me I would soon be made a permanent employee with a salary raise,” says Akku.
She jumped at the opportunity as her husband Shankar Sherigara’s earnings as a manual scavenger were not enough to sustain the family. Married at the age of 13, Akku already had two children by then.
Akku’s daughter Shobha Sherigara, who works as a tailor in a garment company, remembers her mother hardly ever being home as she was growing up. “Amma couldn’t even make it to family occasions as she was forced to work on Sundays too. She would save whatever money she could to buy us clothes,” says Shobha.
Akku and Shankar have four other children, including two sons. Shobha is the youngest, and unmarried. One of Akku’s sons is also unmarried.
Leela lives in Gandhinagar, a few kilometres away. Her three daughters are all unmarried. They dropped out of school before matriculation and don’t work.
Leela joined continued…