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To feed families, educate children, they came to work and died

Most of the 20 migrant labourer women killed in Chennai were young mothers.

Sunita (above) and her mother survived, sister Sujata didn’t. Sunita (above) and her mother survived, sister Sujata didn’t.

The men were giving finishing touches to the masonry while the women workers were watering the walls of 2BHK and 3 BHK flats. They were people who died after the 11-floor ‘Faith’ tower, being built by Prime Sristi Housing Ltd in Chennai, collapsed a week ago.

These men and women would never have lived in the building. The 975-sq foot 2 BHKs were priced at Rs 48.75 lakh; the 1,713-sq foot 3 BHKs at Rs 80 lakh. The twin towers ‘Faith’ and ‘Belief’ were their home only temporarily. They slept in the basements or on the ground floor, and looked after the buildings as they came up.

The death toll in the tragedy reached 61 on Friday. Most of those who died were migrants from Vizianagaram and Srikakulam districts of Andhra Pradesh, and Gajapati district of Orissa. They had left jobs as farm workers to come to Chennai to work at the construction site — where the contractor gave them no employment contract, promised no compensation in case of death or injury, and made them work seven days a week until late at night, mostly barefeet and without basic safety equipment such as helmets and gloves.

But still they came — because it got them on average Rs 175 more daily than what they made in their villages. The men got Rs 400 per day; the women between Rs 225 and Rs 275.

Saturday was payday, and at the time the building collapsed, the workers were waiting for their wages. The earlier week’s dues had not been paid either, and they were eager to see the contractor’s clerk arrive with the cash. Many of them had loans to repay, many had borrowed money to educate their children in the hope that they wouldn’t then have to work at construction sites like their parents.

Of the 20 women who were killed, 12 were from Vizianagaram and 8 from Srikakulam districts. Most of them were young mothers who had decided to join their husbands in Chennai. The Indian Express managed to learn the stories of a few of them.

Bongu Santha Kumari, 25: She was married at the age of 19, and was the mother of a five-year-old son and a two-year-old daughter. She was working on the six floor; her husband B Appala Naidu was in the other tower. Her body was found on June 30, the day after the building collapsed. Santha had never worked outside her home earlier, but had decided to accompany her husband to Chennai last December after they admitted their son to an anganwadi school.

She was getting Rs 250 per day for carrying buckets of water twice a day to floors assigned to her. Appala Naidu said she was looking forward to receiving Rs 1,750 that evening, and had spoken to him about wanting to use the money to buy a gas stove for their home in Badangi in Vizianagaram district.

Rayapu Bharati, 27: Her husband Satish, 30, decided to Chennai after someone in their village told them wages were higher in the construction industry. Bharati stayed back in Makkuva, Vizianagaram, to look after their son and daughter, who had started school last year. In March, she decided to join her husband in Chennai for a few months to earn a little money. V Tirupati, Satish’s best friend, said the couple would have been unable to pay for their children’s education otherwise. For the last three months, Bharati had been earning Rs 200 per day.

Sujata Reddy, 20: Sensing that her parents had starting to worry about how they would get her and her younger sister Sunita married, Sujata came to Chennai from Vizianagaram last December to work alongside their parents. Sunita accompanied her; both discontinued their studies. Sujata and their father Suryanarayana Reddy died; Sunita and their mother Lakshmi survived. The family had gathered on the ground floor to take their weekly wages. As a helper, Sujata earned Rs 175 per day.

Vanum Durga, 17: Durga’s father V Simhachalam died two years ago, and her mother started working as a farm labourer in Srikakulam. But she fell ill last year, and there was no money at home. A distant uncle, Appala Ramu, promised to marry his eldest son to her, and brought her to Chennai four months ago to work alongside his wife Lakshmi and the would-be bridegroom A Surya. Durga would regularly send money to her mother, often twice a month. Durga, her uncle and aunt were crushed to death; Surya, who had gone to have tea, survived. She used to earn Rs 250 per day.

Padala Seemamma, 28: She left an alcoholic husband and returned home in Komarada in Vizianagaram. But the taunts of neighbours and members of the family forced her to leave again and come to Chennai last December. Her brother P Srinu said he had tried to persuade her to return home, but she had refused, saying she wasn’t dependent on anyone, and would no longer be insulted. She earned Rs 250 per day.

Marrapu Damayanthi, 18: After finishing school last March, her father Venkat Naidu and mother Sarojini decided to stop her education so they could concentrate on educating their son Janardhan who is in class 10 in Jiyammavalasa in Vizianagaram. Damayanthi came to Chennai last December, and 10 days later, started working alongside her parents. Last Saturday, her mother watched in horror from the adjacent tower as her daughter and husband were crushed. Damayanthi’s earned Rs 250 per day.

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