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A Legacy of Protest and Progressiveness: A summary of a first-hand account of the struggles of Pennurimai Iyakkam, past and present

August 1, 2013 by

Many of us spent last Friday afternoon at Pennurimai Iyakkam’s (P.I.) office in Purasawalkam. P.I. is a movement and organisation that works with and for underprivileged women. Most of us at Transparent Chennai have worked with PI on a number of occasions but this was the first opportunity we had to sit down and hear about their history, the nature of their work and how it has changed over the years in detail.

Leelavathy amma, Kamala amma, Revathi amma and Suguna amma, all veteran members of the organisation began with a brief account of the origins of the group and its early history. Each of them grounded their recollections of the operations of PI in their own experience and provided insight into how joining the movement changed their lives. We learnt that one of the first important challenges to be taken up by the group after its founding in 1979 was that of dowry related deaths. Throughout the 80s and after, PI has worked to help affected women and families, providing support through counselling as well as litigation. This aspect of the group’s work has stayed core to their activities ever since and is supported by a number of women lawyers who lend their time and expertise to fight the cases that are brought on a weekly basis to PI by women and families seeking aid to redress the crimes committed against them.

Leelavathy amma related how in the mid 1970s against the backdrop of the activities of the Tamil Nadu Slum Clearance Board, PI began to take an active interest in issues facing slum dwellers, especially women in the city. It was through this sphere of action that she herself first entered the group after various PI members helped stage a protest against slum evictions in the slum she was living in. In the following years PI established itself as one of the primary voices of slum dwellers in the city. The fact that for much of this time Chennai had no locally elected representatives as it does today meant that groups like PI played a crucial role in helping people get their grievances and demands heard by the government. The record of success and credibility established by PI in these years makes them an important and respected actor in these spaces today, despite the increased presence of other actors such as political parties.

After a compelling and thought provoking account of the history and activities of the group over the years, the floor was thrown open to questions. When asked how the problems faced by women had changed over the years, Kamala amma responded that that in many ways they had stayed the same. Freedom, agency and safety or lack thereof was all still major considerations for all women in the city, across classes. She added that certain newer issues had also become more prominent in recent times such as sexual harassment in the workplace, harassment by male social acquaintances etc. One question requested a clarification of the relationship PI had with the Unorganised Workers’ Federation, a group they work with closely and share many members with. It was explained that in 2001, it was decided that unorganised workers needed a level of representation greater than what existed. While, the various occupational groups had some sort of organisation only the construction workers were properly represented. The fact that women form a large part of the informal workforce made this a key issue for PI. Since then PI has worked with the women in the unorganised sector in conjunction with UWF in an effort to secure them the rights and entitlements they otherwise have little to no access to. It was particularly interesting to note how that it was/is through the vehicle of the women’s’ movement that many sections of the informal workforce, such as domestic workers and waste pickers (albeit slowly) are being brought into the fold with their issues receiving greater attention than before.

When talking about some of the challenges they face in their continuing struggles, the ladies reflected on how the constituency of PI had evolved over the years. The group was founded primarily by a group of like-minded educated women, many of them professors, lawyers, etc. Over time, this has changed considerably to the point where most members come from slums around the city and belong to the underprivileged classes. This development made the group a much stronger entity able to function and effect change at the grassroots level. However, the retreat of the middle and upper classes from the sort of activism and social consciousness that saw such groups as PI formed in the first place has handicapped the movement in some ways. One of the PI members stated how they had very little online presence and access to media outlets. In order to take full advantage of these avenues of operation it is necessary for educated women (and men) to once again make them, their time and effort available to PI and groups like them. PI also plans to hold recruiting drives in women’s colleges across the city to infuse new blood into the movement.

Before the meeting was closed, all of us from TC enrolled ourselves as members in Pennurimai Iyakkam and made ourselves available to help with both the group’s routine activities and the particular ways in which they need help from the educated classes. The membership fee is Rs. 65 for slum dwellers and Rs. 105 for others. Family counselling sessions usually happen on Fridays, and slum issues are dealt with on Saturdays. In order to enrol as members (and only women can be members) or help out in any way (men and women can help!), do get in touch with Leelavathy amma by calling +91 9840620367.

Written by Harsha Anantharaman, researcher at Transparent Chennai.