Washing dirty linen for a living

Despite mechanisation, dhobi ghat battles concerns of health and rising costs

Washing dirty linen for a living

His swollen legs looked bizarre, the skin even more grotesque. But washerman Murthy had no choice. Despite the doctor’s warnings, he had to dip those diseased pair of legs in a water tank that had turned a chemical concoction of washing soda, bleaching powder and detergents. 

At the dhobi ghat in Brindavan Nagar near Kempabudikere--arguably one of the city’s oldest--, Murthy knew he had to eek out a living that way like the 300 others. And the thousands of their kind in 27 other dhobi ghats spread across the City.

Mechanised partially, the dhobi ghat had two washing machines and two driers installed. But these had not totally negated the need to manually wash the thousands of clothes that made their way to the ghat from hotels, hospitals and guest houses. With water sourced from three borewells and an open well, the dhobis had to beat the garments of every hue on inclined concrete blocks. The steady beats of clothes hitting the blocks had defined their lives. It was not going away in a hurry.

The job was tough, the returns meagre. The labour-intensive laundry service, combining transportation and rising cost of power and water, was hard toil. But 30-year-old P. Santhosh, a third generation washerman, was firm in his decision to carry on the family business. 

“My grandfather, Mysore Pappanna had moved in to this area in 1961, followed by my father, Pappanna Murthy who started work when he was barely ten. Now I don’t want to do anything else,” Santhosh told Deccan Herald. 

The family had a tradition of even serving the British army camps, washing uniforms for the personnel in the Old Cantonment area.  

His eyes set on a foreign education for his daughter, Santhosh was definitely ambitious. But for now, he had a mammoth struggle in hand. “We get table clothes and  bedsheets from hotels and lodges in Majestic, Chickpet, City Market and surrounding areas besides the hospital laundry and clothes from dry-cleaning shops. The returns are not good. For laundry, the shops charge Rs. 20 for a dress. But they give us only four rupees for a piece. Our dry cleaning charges are only Rs. 10 a piece, while the big outlets charge Rs. 200 to Rs. 300,” Santhosh explained. 

Electricity charges had soared once the washing machines were installed. Nevertheless, they had triggered a quantum leap in speed. Two hundred shirts in an hour was indeed quick. That had helped the dhobis get about 50,000 clothes washed and dried every day. Yet, with monthly electricity bills hitting Rs. 25,000 and detergent costs rising to Rs. 15,000 besides expenditure on soda and other additives, the benefits did not add up. The dhobighat worked from 7.30 am to 6 pm. Cleanliness was non-negotiable. So was security. As Nagaraj, who supervised the mechanised washing unit, pointed out, missing even a shirt would prove too costly for the washermen. 

“The penalty is Rs. 500 for one missing item. It is not worth it, when all you get for a washed shirt is Rs. 3. For a bedsheet, we might get about Rs. 4. But if we fall sick, the day’s business is gone. There is no ESI or medical insurance of any kind. And, we don’t possess records to show that we come under BPL!”

The washermen’s only hope could be the imminent launch of the 112 single-bedroom flats being built under the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JnNURM). “We will all shift to the flats once they are ready,” said Nagaraj, who supervised the mechanised washing unit. The construction, which began on November 28, 2012, was scheduled for completion in March this year. 

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