India female sanitation workers overjoyed after $1.2m lottery win

Eleven sanitation workers, who pooled money to buy a lottery ticket, win $1.2m jackpot in a big change in their fortunes.

Parappanangadi, India – M Radha, a sanitation worker in the southern state of Kerala, says when she checked her mobile phone on July 27, she could not believe her eyes; she had won the 100 million rupees ($1.2m) lottery jackpot.

The 49-year-old had pooled money along with 10 other colleagues to buy the 250 rupees ($3) monsoon bumper lottery ticket in June.

“I screamed loudly and hugged my colleagues who stood in disbelief,” an overjoyed Radha told Al Jazeera at her workplace in Parappanangadi municipality in Malappuram district.

“It is the best thing that has happened to our lives. We had purchased many lottery tickets before. But our time has come only now,” she said.

The group of 11 women work to segregate non-biodegradable waste at the Material Collection Facility in Parappanangadi municipality.

The women said they struggle to make ends meet with their current daily wage of about 400 rupees ($5). Many of them are in debt, they said.

When the ticket vendor approached them in June, they could not afford the 250 rupees ticket individually, so they decided to join forces. Radha says she persuaded her colleagues to contribute 25 rupees ($0.30) each to buy the lottery ticket.

But 65-year-old C Kuttimalu could not manage to raise her share. But leaving out a senior member from the group was tough, hence they agreed for Kuttimalu and her 64-year-old cousin Baby to split their contribution – 12.50 rupees ($0.15) each.

Kerala Sanitation Workers Hitting a Jackpot
A view of the lottery stall in Parappanangadi in Kerala. [T.A. Ameerudheen/Al Jazeera]

‘Most deserving’

The joy of 11 women soon transformed into a festival of sorts in Parappanangadi, a vibrant municipality – home to about 70,000 people.

Congratulatory messages poured in from friends and relatives, while social media posts talked about “Lady Luck smiling on the most deserving people on earth”.

Six members of the group are Dalits – the former untouchables – and the rest hail from the unprivileged Hindu castes. Waste collection in India is seen with stigma and it mostly involves people from the unprivileged castes.

“I have been living in penury all these years. My husband’s death put my family’s burden on me. I am still working to make ends meet,” P Karthyayani told Al Jazeera.

“I hope this jackpot will end my misery forever,” the 74-year-old widow, who supports her family, said.

K Chandrika was bedridden for seven months after she suffered a stroke nearly a year ago. The 53-year-old survived but she incurred massive debt.

“I am in deep debt. I was clueless – how to pay off my debts. I hope the jackpot will save me,” Chandrika, who joined work a few days before buying the ticket, told Al Jazeera.

“This is a God-sent gift,” she said.

Kerala Sanitation Workers Hitting a Jackpot
The 11 women sanitation workers from Parappanangadi Municipality hit the Rs 10 crore ($1.2m) jackpot. [T.A. Ameerudheen/Al Jazeera]

The jackpot has given a huge relief for Radha – the youngest and leader of the group – who has been facing financial difficulties.

She shares her two-room thatched-roof house covered with tarpaulin in a densely populated neighbourhood of Parappanangadi with five other family members.

“I have to build a home where all six can live a comfortable life. It is my first priority because I have been living in a congested house for all these years,” she said.

The other sanitation workers too have their share of worries.

Leela’s daughter, who met with an accident two years ago, needs multiple surgeries; Shobha, a widow who lost her daughter six months ago, has to pay off debts and renovate her house; Lakshmi has to dig a well at home for drinking water and marry off her daughter; Bindu has to complete the construction of her house that has been stalled following the death of her husband two years ago. Baby, Kuttimalu, Parvathy and Sheeja also want to use the money to build new houses.

Not to leave their jobs

The jackpot has taught the women to dream big, but they have decided not to leave their job at the Haritha Karma Sena (Green Task Force) launched by the local government in 2016, which plays a key role in keeping the state clean.

The sanitation workers collect non-biodegradable waste from households and public bins, bring them to the collection facility, segregate them and send them for shredding and recycling.

“It is a low-paying job, but it gives us plenty of energy,” said 48-year-old Sheeja. They earn between 12,000 rupees ($144) and 14,000 rupees ($170) a month.

Kerala Sanitation Workers Hitting a Jackpot
Women segregate non-biodegradable waste at the Material Collection Centre in Parappanangadi in Kerala’s Malappuram District. [T.A. Ameerudheen/Al Jazeera]

“We forget all our miseries and misfortunes when we work here. We sing songs and pull each other’s legs. It is impossible to leave this work until we are down with serious illnesses.”

“Nonetheless, it is a big amount for us. We require the money to pay back our bank loans and buy essentials,” said 55-year-old Parvathy.

Gauri P, the secretary of the Green Task Force, said the jackpot would definitely improve the financial condition of poor women.

“For them, work is worship. They work hard to keep the municipality clean of non-degradable waste,” she said while overseeing the waste collection.

Recognising their hard work and dedication, last year the local government declared them the best Green Task Force in the state.

Accolades and anxiety

The rare camaraderie of the sanitation workers has won accolades from many quarters. Feminist historian and academic J Devika said she was happy for them.

“The poor are expected to toil endlessly for even the most insignificant welfare benefit. Lady Luck has let them cock a snook at neoliberalism’s punitive work ethic,” Devika told Al Jazeera.

“It brings people together. I hope the spirit endures because it is hard for it to survive in these times in which individual gain is the watchword in everything,” she said.

Meanwhile, in Parappanangadi, the women are looking forward to receiving the prize money.

Malappuram district lottery officer, Lethish NH, said the amount will be disbursed immediately after the women submit relevant documents.

“There will not be any delay from the part of the lottery department if the documents are perfect,” he said.

Kerala Sanitation Workers Hitting a Jackpot
Radha took the initiative to buy the Rs 250 ($3) ticket with contribution from the 10 other women workers at Material Collection Centre at Parappanangadi. [T.A. Ameerudheen/Al Jazeera]

Lottery is illegal in several Indian states but it’s considered the backbone of Kerala’s finances. The state earned 71.45 billion rupees ($929m) from lottery sales in 2021-22. The state’s lottery department runs seven weekly lotteries and six bumper lotteries in a year.

The women’s group is expected to get 63 million rupees ($760,024) after deducting the agent’s commission and government taxes. This amount will be equally divided into 10 parts, and nine women will get 6.3 million rupees ($76,190) each. Two others – Kuttimalu and Baby – who shared their part of the cost of the lottery ticket would equally divide the 10th share of the proceeds.

“The bank officials have asked all of us to produce Aadhaar [India’s unique identity number] and other relevant documents. We will complete the process soon,” said Kuttimalu.

Radha, who generally buys the tickets for the group, says she plans to buy the upcoming Onam Bumper Lottery ticket, which offers prize money of 250 million rupees ($3m), with equal shares from all the 57 members of the Green Task Force.

“We feel bad for not purchasing the Monsoon Bumper [that hit the jackpot] together. This is the best way to make amends for it. The ticket cost is 500 rupees ($6). We will chip in 9 rupees [$0.1] each,” she said.

“Who knows Lady Luck will smile on us once again.”

Source: Al Jazeera