D Pothumallee pulled a table to the centre of her living room. Her husband, R Dharmaraj, lifted a neatly stacked pile of papers from a shelf and placed it on top of the table. The couple had spent the previous night rummaging through their cupboards, looking for these papers. Some had gathered dust and were slowly yellowing – after all, they had been put away for almost 11 years. The couple dug into the pile, pulled out a stapled bunch and handed it to me with pride. On it was written – “D Pothumallee vs the District Collector”.

It had taken a few phone calls to track down Pothumallee, who lives in Kattakudi village, in Tamil Nadu’s Thiruvarur district. With each call, the person on the other end expressed amusement over the name, which was unusual, and did not have a literal meaning in Tamil. “There is a whole story behind it,” Pothumallee said, laughing.

When Pothumallee was born on March 22, 1978, her family wasn’t particularly happy. After four daughters, her parents were sure that they would have a baby boy. In an effort to send a sign to the gods that they were done having daughters, her parents wanted to name her “Pothum-ponnu”, which translates to “enough of girl children”. But reasoning that it was perhaps too strange a name, they settled on Pothumallee, replacing the word for girl with the one for jasmine. “Yet, the one after me also turned out to be a girl and only after her, a boy was born,” Pothumallee said, still laughing.

Pothumallee described herself as being a happy child who loved singing and dancing. “I wouldn’t shy away from anything, and never allowed anyone to talk down to me,” she recalled. “I would always speak my mind.” She studied up till Class 12 and wanted to go to college, but her family’s financial situation did not allow it. Pothumallee comes from the Paraiyar community, a Dalit group that is officially listed as a Scheduled Caste. Her family members either worked as daily wage earners or in agricultural fields, and could not afford to send her to college.

At the age of 22, she married Dharmaraj, who was her aunt’s son, and who grew up in the same house. After a brief fever when he was six years old, Dharmaraj had been diagnosed with polio. Ever since, he has walked with a limp.

Pothumallee wanted to become a teacher. After she married, she and her husband both decided to apply for government posts. Since Dharmaraj was disabled, Pothumallee took up daily wage work as they looked for jobs. While Dharmaraj, who had studied up to Class 12, applied for a range of jobs, Pothumallee focused on posts at anganwadis, childcare and mother-care centres run by the Ministry of Women and Child Development as part of the Integrated Child Development Services scheme. Anganwadis’ services include providing nutritious meals, nutrition and health education, immunisation, health checkups, preschool education and contraceptive counselling for adolescents.

Anganwadis are childcare and mother-care centres run by the Ministry of Women and Child Development, whose services include providing children with nutritious meals, immunisation and preschool education. Photo: Arun SANKAR/AFP

Each anganwadi technically has three positions – a worker, often referred to as the teacher, a cook and a helper. Every time Pothumallee saw vacancies advertised in the newspapers, she would apply. Between 2001 and 2009, she applied six times – each time she was selected for an interview, but was eventually rejected.

Another source of frustration for the couple was their difficulty in having a child – after five years and consultations with several doctors, they had a son. But jobs continued to elude them. They began to visit every local official, leader and politician, asking for help.

“There isn’t a door we did not knock on,” Dharmaraj said. “Both of us were eligible for the jobs we were applying for, but somehow, we were rejected each time. Everyone said they would help us but no one did.”

The competition to land government jobs in India is cut-throat. In 2019, over 4,600 candidates, including those with BTech, MTech and MBA degrees, applied for ten vacancies for sweeper posts in Tamil Nadu. Especially in rural India, government jobs are often the only stable form of employment available. Individuals who don’t own land or other assets and depend on daily wages to make a living, toil relentlessly to try and secure these jobs.

Struggling for a job for so many years began to take a toll on Pothumallee’s family, emotionally and financially. “Our condition was so bad that I couldn’t buy my son an ice-candy stick that cost just two rupees,” she said. “Those years were some of the worst of our lives. Each day was a struggle for survival.”

The couple began to lose their patience. They felt that the employment process was rigged against them. “It was all about caste, money and politics,” Dharmaraj said. “Only people with influence would end up getting the jobs and we would end up running door to door, begging.”

Tamil Nadu is usually among the highest ranked Indian states on development indicators. The state was second on Niti Aayog’s Sustainable Development Goals India Index 2020-’21, which evaluates the progress of states and union territories on social, economic and environmental parameters. Historically, Tamil Nadu has been associated with social welfare innovations – it was the first state to introduce midday meals in schools, which were later extended to anganwadis.

But these progressive measures run up against deeply entrenched caste discrimination. The Madurai-based NGO Evidence found through Right to Information Act applications that between 2016 and 2020, 300 caste killings had taken place in the state. There were only 13 convictions for these crimes in the same period of time. Tamil Nadu has accounted for the maximum number of atrocity cases against Dalits since 2014 – which some read as proof of deep caste divides, but others interpret as a sign that oppressed castes are more empowered than elsewhere, and thus less hesitant to file cases when subjected to violence.

Kattakudi had faced its share of caste discrimination. When Pothumallee went to the anganwadi as a child, she recounted, children from communities that were lower on the caste hierarchy were seated on the last bench. Most children from castes that were placed higher would not eat at the anganwadi, and the ones that did were separated from the lower caste children. “There was always some distance between us while we sat inside,” Pothumallee recalled. “We were not allowed to mix.” She remembered the same unspoken restrictions being followed through school, right up to Class 12.

She also recalled more overt violence from the Kallar community, officially counted among the Other Backward Classes. “We live in an SC area, and there were instances where the oppressor community attacked and ransacked our homes,” Pothumallee said, though she added that no major such incidents had occurred in the past ten years.

Even as they struggled to find jobs, the couple was aware that there were rules that favoured them. In 2004, in an interim order in a Public Interest Litigation case filed by People’s Union for Civil Liberties, the Supreme Court had directed the Central government to ensure that “all SC/ST hamlets/inhabitations have Anganwadi Centres as early as possible” in order to bring down malnutrition rates that were shooting up in these regions. The court also ordered that, “In appointment of cooks and helpers, preference shall be given to Dalits, Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes.” A 2010 order from the Tamil Nadu government mandated that staff employed at anganwadis should be hired from among those who resided within 3 km of the centres.

Dharmaraj filed queries under the Right to Information Act to find out why his wife was not able to land a job in an anganwadi close to their home. “We were tired of applying over and over again and getting rejected each time, so I wanted to know the reason behind it,” he said. “The RTI responses I got said that these kinds of recruitments were exempt from reservations.” In 2009, Pothumallee was once again rejected for a job at the anganwadi in Kattakudi. This time around, the couple found out that the job had gone to a woman from a neighbouring village, who was from a higher caste.

Dharmaraj suggested to Pothumallee that they take the issue to court. “I was so surprised,” she said. “We are just a small family and know nothing about courts or cases. What bothered me the most was how we were even going to afford to file this case.” But Dharmaraj had made up his mind.

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In the summer of 2009, Dharmaraj travelled to Chennai, and walked the crowded footpaths of Thambu Chetty Road, which is lined with offices of the advocates of the Madras High Court, situated a stone’s throw away. “Many of the lawyers I approached did not want to take up a case like this,” Dharmaraj said. Finally, he was directed to a lawyer named Vijendran, who often handled cases of caste and gender discrimination, and atrocities.

“A very small number of people from marginalised communities actually have the resources and support to approach the courts if they are facing injustices,” Vijendran said, when I met him in his office in late August. “But I regularly had people come to me with complaints that they had not been appointed for jobs for which they had been eligible.” The shelves behind him were stuffed with books, typical of a lawyer’s office, and on the walls hung portraits of Dr BR Ambedkar.

Vijendran, the lawyer in Chennai whom Dharmaraj approached for help with securing Pothumallee's appointment, had a reputation for taking on cases of caste and gender discrimination, and atrocities.

Vijendran’s clientele included individuals applying for anganwadi jobs. “If people have money and influence, they can easily land themselves a government job,” he explained. “If you have neither, there is a very small chance of that happening.”

He added, “Eventually, it always comes back to caste.” According to him, it was people from lower caste communities who were most often rejected from jobs, because they lacked money or influence. The day that we met, Vijendran received a notification that a case that had been filed in 2008 was being called for a hearing in 2021. Here too, an SC woman had gone to court after an anganwadi post she had applied for had gone to a woman who lived ten kilometres away. “However, even if the judgement goes in her favour, she won’t benefit from it because she has crossed 40 years of age, which is the limit to apply for these jobs,” he said.

Vijendran drafted a petition that challenged the appointment of the woman from the higher caste to the post that Pothumallee sought. It argued that the position should be reserved for a woman from a scheduled caste.

“Upper caste workers don’t even touch the children that they are feeding. How can we not have reservations in such positions?” he told me.

The petition also noted that in 2008, the Tamil Nadu government had issued an order asking anganwadis and midday meal centres to follow a “communal roster” in appointments, referring to a system to ensure prescribed reservation quotas for different communities across a cadre.

The respondents, among them the district collector of Thiruvarur and the government of Tamil Nadu, claimed that anganwadi jobs could not be considered formal government posts. They cited a letter from the central government that stated that anganwadi workers and helpers were “honorary workers from the local community” and that, therefore, “no reservation for SCs, STs and OBCs in their selection has been provided under the scheme as they are not deemed to be Government employees.” The letter also noted that “in 2006, the Supreme Court in the State of Karnataka versus Ameerbi case had stated that the anganwadi workers are not the holders of any civil post.” That judgement observed that in the case of anganwadi workers, “The State is not required to comply with the constitutional scheme of equality as adumbrated under Articles 14 and 16 of the Constitution of India. No process of selection for the purpose of their appointment within the constitutional scheme exists.”

Pothumallee’s case was heard by Justice K Chandru, who was known for several pathbreaking judgements in favour of oppressed communities. (A case of custodial death he fought as a lawyer, before he became a judge, inspired the recent film Jai Bhim.) Pothumallee and Dharmaraj could only afford to attend the occasional hearing – Chennai is about 345 km from Kattakudi. “The advocate did not demand much money from us, so the case did not financially drain us,” Dharmaraj said. “But travelling to Chennai was expensive.”

Their extended family could not understand why the couple was taking on such a fight. “They asked us why we were getting involved in such major issues and attracting trouble,” Pothumallee recalled. “They also couldn’t understand why we would take up this case at a time when we were struggling to make ends meet.”

On April 19, 2010, the day the judgement was delivered, Pothumallee and Dharmaraj were at home. Dharmaraj’s phone rang – it was Vijendran, telling him that they had won their case.

The couple were stunned – they had never really considered the possibility of winning. But, Dharmaraj said, it was only later, while reading a copy of the judgement that they realised the enormous significance of the case, and how it tapped into historical questions of great import.

Pothumallee and Dharmaraj outside their home inThiruvarur district, with a copy of the 2010 Madras High Court judgement that ordered reservations in the appointment of anganwadi staffers in the state.

In his judgement, Justice Chandru had invoked a debate between MK Gandhi and EV Ramasamy, popularly known as Periyar, the iconic social activist and political leader from Tamil Nadu. The two had locked horns over the issue of separate dining for Brahmin and non-Brahmin students in a Congress-sponsored school near Chennai. Gandhi had said that while he encouraged inter-dining between different castes, he would “resist the attempt to break down the restrictions regarding the feelings of others. On the contrary, I would respect their scruples.” Periyar on the other hand, completely opposed this view and condemned the concept of separate dining. The dispute led to considerable bitterness between Brahmin and non-Brahmin Congress leaders during the time.

The judgement also quoted a study from the 2009 book Blocked by Caste, edited by the scholars Sukhdeo Thorat and Katherine S Newman. The study, conducted in 12 villages in the districts of Ahmedabad in Gujarat and Barmer in Rajasthan, found that 87% anganwadi workers did not touch Dalit children, 86% made them sit separately during lunchtime, 72% didn’t speak to the children gently and that 98% of Dalit children said they were served food last.

“I used Pothumallee as a springboard to arrive at a larger class action,” Justice Chandru told me. “That I succeeded in doing, and the government agreed with me.”

The broader question the judgment addressed was that of whether reservations should be implemented in anganwadi appointments. The judgment pointed out that since the government ran the scheme and bore its entire cost, including the costs of provisions, utensils and salaries of all employees, the positions had to be considered public employment. “Any appointment to such posts must be subjected to the touchstone of Articles 14 and 16 of the Constitution,” the judgement concluded, referring to the right to equality before the law, and the right to equal opportunity in public employment.” The Tamil Nadu government was barred from filling the large number of anganwadi posts that were vacant “till such time as they provide … rules of reservation” and ensured “due representation to SC/ST communities.”

The judgement remains remarkable for its progressive vision. Dipa Sinha, an Assistant Professor at Ambedkar University Delhi, who has worked closely with the Right to Food campaign, pointed out that across India, the earlier Supreme Court order that had “issued broad guidelines on how SC/ST areas should have anganwadis and local people from the communities should be hired” remained in place. But other than that, she added, “reservations are not mandated in any other states like they are in Tamil Nadu.”

“I had tears in my eyes as I read the judgement,” Dharmaraj said. “It was so long but everything the judge had said moved me.” As soon as they heard the news from the lawyer, the couple told their family and friends. “They thought we were just wasting our time by filing this case,” Pothumallee said. “They could not believe we actually won it.”

Two months later, in June 2010, the Tamil Nadu government issued an order implementing Justice Chandru’s judgement.

Pothumallee was happy. She believed that she would finally get the job that she had been yearning for, after ten long years. Expecting her posting to follow the government order, Pothumallee waited patiently. She waited...and waited.

The posting did not come.

“We went back to court in 2011,” Pothumallee said. Vijendran filed a contempt petition in court, arguing that Pothumallee had not received her posting despite the court case and the government order. But Justice Chandru, before whom it came up, did not entertain it, maintaining that he had passed a broader judgement, and so could not delve into the merits of individual appointments. “In my judgement I did not say Pothumallee should get a job,” Chandru told me, “The selection process was over. Whether she gets it or not, is not up to me.”

After coming so close to realising their dream, Pothumallee and her husband slumped into disappointment again.

But, they believe, Justice Chandru’s actions eventually did come to their rescue. In 2013, the judge wrote about the case in a Tamil series in a women’s fortnightly, based on interesting cases over which he had presided, where women had been the petitioners (later released as the book Listen To My Case). A local newspaper subsequently contacted the couple and wrote about them.

Fifteen days later, Pothumallee received her posting. Though they have no evidence to prove that the development was linked to the media attention, Dharamarajan said that it was after the judge wrote about the case that “people started taking note of us.” Immediately after, he added, “a reporter called us and said he had read about us in Justice Chandru’s series and wanted to interview us.”

A 2013 article about Pothumallee's fight for a job, by Justice K Chandru, which led to the case receiving added attention. Both Pothumallee and Dharmaraj received government jobs the same year.

Pothumallee remembered another reason why the day she received the good news was significant. “On the day that my daughter turned five, my posting arrived,” she said. She was appointed as an anganwadi worker, and four months later, Dharmaraj also received a government posting.

Pothumallee has worked for the last eight years at the same anganwadi, the same centre where she grew up. “My life started there and now I work in the same place,” she said with pride.

But the centre is situated in a largely OBC area, and though she does not allow anyone to mistreat her or speak down to her, she is cautious about stoking any trouble – she said the fact that she went to court with her case prevents people from indulging in any casteist behaviour with her. Still, she continues to take some precautions, such as staying away from cooking for the children, she told me when I met her in August. When the woman who works as the cook and helper, who is from an OBC community, asks for a day off, “I request her to at least just cook the food, and offer to do all her other duties,” she said. “I do not want people to be upset with me cooking and cause unnecessary unrest.”

Pothumallee’s wariness isn’t without basis: over the years, there have been several cases in Tamil Nadu of Dalit cooks facing casteist harrassment from oppressor castes in the villages they worked in, and sometimes being transferred because of the latter’s prejudice.

In June 2019, two Scheduled Caste women hired to work at an anganwadi in Valayapatti in Madurai were transferred to another centre, the day after they received their appointments. The oppressor castes in the village complained that the presence of the two women would “pollute the food”. These events played out against a backdrop of conflict in the village, with oppressor caste villagers targeting Dalits for harassment and violence, even entering their houses to break doors, damage vehicles, and injure people and livestock.

Dalit activists say such incidents happen often but that only a few make it to the papers. R Karuppusamy, a Dalit human rights activist who has been working in the field of child rights, health and education for over 20 years, said that Dalit women frequently approach him about caste discrimination they face in anganwadis. “A few years ago, in a village in Erode, upper castes were adamant that the Dalit woman hired at the anganwadi there should be transferred,” he said. “Eventually, the local authorities told the woman that they would not transfer her, but asked her not to do the work she was hired for and not to touch any utensils. She was asked to just do some cleaning, while away her time and go back.”

When it came to appointments, Karuppusamy said that in order to avoid trouble from the oppressor castes, Dalit women sometimes get sent to far-off villages.

“Even if they pay money for these posts, they are still posted in villages they have no connection to because of the pressure from the upper castes,” he said.

This in turn affects children in anganwadis in areas with large Dalit populations, which end up run by workers from oppressor castes. “The anganwadi children suffer because of this,” he said. “People who are meant to take care of them refuse to touch them or feed them.”

Pothumallee wanted to avoid this kind of conflict. But when the government ordered anganwadis to reopen on September 1, 2021, after several phases of lockdown, she found that she was the only worker at the anganwadi. “The helper retired this year,” she said. “And so now, I’m the one cooking and taking care of the children. I was nervous on the first day. Anxious about what people will say if I cook the food.” But the first day passed smoothly, and nobody raised any objection to her cooking. “All the children eat peacefully and some even take food back home. So I’m relieved,” she said when I spoke to her in September. As of mid November, she had not faced any trouble in the course of her work.

Pothumallee and Dharmaraj’s decision to take their problem to court ended up benefiting other marginalised women. “Even though Pothumallee did not get her posting immediately after the case, we know that the order allowed more SC women to find jobs,” Dharmaraj said.

In a neighbouring village in Kumbakonam, Pothumallee’s colleague, who preferred to stay anonymous, also managed to get a posting in 2010, after the government order was passed. “I spent five years struggling to get a posting,” she said. “My father would travel with me everywhere I went. To offices, for interviews, to submit applications. Those were harrowing days.” Today, she said, she feels independent and loves her job.

Members of the midday meal workers association and anganwadi workers association in Tamil Nadu that I spoke to agreed that the situation had improved significantly in the last decade, and that reservations were largely followed in anganwadi appointments. In cases where upper caste individuals were appointed to anganwadis in areas with a predominantly scheduled caste population, “people can immediately get a stay on the appointment. People are much more aware these days of their rights,” one of the women said.

While the Pothumallee case led to implementation of reservations across Tamil Nadu's anganwadis, workers and applicants alleged that money and connections continue to influence appointments.

However, though reservations are followed across the state, money and recommendations from high places still help people land these jobs, union leaders, workers and job applicants said. “It is an open secret,” said a social worker from Kumbakonam, Thiruvarur who helps underprivileged women in the area apply for jobs.

“Everyone knows that’s how things work. If you know the local political leader or if you can pay him, you can be assured a job.”

After individuals apply for the jobs that are advertised, eligible candidates are called for an interview. The selection committee usually includes officials such as the block development officer, a district social welfare officer or a child development project officer. Candidates who are widows or destitute, are supposed to be given priority during the appointments. Depending on the position, candidates have to meet certain requirements, such as having passed Class 10, or having a basic ability to read and write. Age limits and pay also vary from post to post, and years of work. A cook who is just starting out is paid around Rs 4,500 and a worker is paid around Rs 7,500 – a cook with 30 years of experience gets around Rs 8,000, while a worker with similar experience gets around Rs 14,000.

Thirty-two-year-old K Vijaylakshmi, a mother of two from Ayapakkam, Tiruvalluvar district, started applying for jobs at anganwadis after her husband became an alcoholic. But all the four times in the last six years that she was called in for interviews for the post of anganwadi cook or helper, she was rejected. The process seemed blatantly unfair to her. “The people next to me would openly tell me that they were sure about getting the post because they had paid a local politician,” she said. “Later when I would call to enquire, they would tell me they’ve got the job.” The interviews, she said, were just done “for formality’s sake”.

Since the people who got the jobs were from the same locality as her, Vijaylakshmi said it was easy to recognise they came from well-to-do families.

Vijayalakshmi said she did everything right. “I answered all the questions they asked. Applied for all the documents and submitted everything correctly. But it’s of no use,” she said.

The process has worn Vijaylakshmi out. “It’s on me now to support my family,” she said, blinking back tears. “I have all my documents, I’m eligible for the cook’s position and yet I haven’t found a job. It is frustrating to see people get the job just because they have money.”

One 40-year-old woman from Thiruvarur district, who belongs to an OBC community, who lost her husband in 2016 in an accident, told me she had been struggling to get a job at the anganwadi near her house. “I’ve stood in line and watched women in much worse condition than me,” said the woman, who has a nine-year-old son. “They would be waiting for hours together, but some of us knew that the candidates had already been picked.” Since she is a widow, the woman should have been given priority, but she too said that authorities were biased towards those who bribed their way in or came in through the recommendation of local politicians.

Scroll.in contacted the district collectors of Thiruvallur, Thiruvarur and Chennai for their responses to the women’s accounts. The collector of Thiruvarur, Gayatri Krishnan, responded to say, “We assure placement based on merit.” She added, “We watch the process carefully to ensure genuine applicants are given the job. Anganwadi workers play a key role in a lot of our grassroots programmes. Therefore, ensuring it goes to a well-deserving individual is important to us.” At the time of publication, the collectors of the other two districts had not responded.

Manimegalai P, a 33-year-old single woman from an SC community, from Ayapakkam, Tiruvallur, said she had tried applying five times for a job at the anganwadi in her locality and had been called for an interview twice. She had always been fond of children and had long nurtured the dream of working in an anganwadi someday because of a childhood memory. “I used to come to this very same anganwadi as a child,” she said, pointing to the room we were sitting in. “There was an elderly woman here who took care of me. She was the nicest and kindest woman, and up until Class 10, I used to come here when my parents were away at work. I always aspired to do what she did, one day. ”

Not only were her applications unsuccessful, Manimegalai was also approached by a man who sought a bribe. “I was asked to pay Rs 5 lakh once,” she said. “There was a man I saw regularly when I went to submit my application. He told me not to keep going every day and asked why I was struggling so much. He said, instead I can just pay the money and get the post.”

After repeated failed attempts to secure a job, Manimegalai gave up trying over a year ago, though she occasionally volunteers to help with the children. “The truth is that I’m tired of trying,” she said. She also pointed out that each time she applies, she ends up spending between Rs 2,000 and Rs 3,000 on transport, stationery and other expenses.

Current employees of the anganwadi sitting around us let out a sigh of disapproval. “It’s simple, you have money – the job is yours,” one member of the anganwadi workers’ association said. “No need for so many certificates, and applications, and so many questions won’t be thrown at you.” She added, “We joined pre-2010, and at that time, fewer women applied for these jobs, so this bribery business did not happen much. Now even degree holders are applying for jobs, which is why these demands are rising.”

The worker pointed out that since people were securing jobs by paying bribes or through recommendations, they were less afraid of authorities.

“Because they’ve paid money for their jobs, nobody can call them out if they don’t do their work properly,” another worker said.

Clearly, even after Pothumallee’s landmark victory, much ground remains to be covered.

While Pothumallee was aware of the challenges that others in search of jobs continue to face, she was eager to share her story of hope. As we exited her house, she pointed to a spot in her garden and said that a hut had stood there a few years earlier, and that the couple and their two children had lived in it for years. But after she and her husband received their postings, they were able to save some money and construct the larger house in which they now live.

Since then, Pothumallee has been able to buy her son, named Neethiarasan, which means “king of justice”, more than just candy. She proudly showed me the certificates he had been awarded as a cricket player, with the same bright smile she had had from the minute we met.

At the end of our meeting, as I made my way out of their house, I asked if I could take a photo of the couple, to which Pothumalle responded, “I’ve been waiting forever for you to ask!”

This reporting is made possible with support from Report for the World, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project.