Why women, once ignored, are being treasured in Krishnagiri

A worker at Ola Electric’s scooter factory at Pochampalli in Krishnagiri district. Ola employs 2,500 women at this plant.
A worker at Ola Electric’s scooter factory at Pochampalli in Krishnagiri district. Ola employs 2,500 women at this plant.

Summary

  • Krishnagiri is among Tamil Nadu’s most backward districts and ranks poorly on almost all social parameters, especially those pertaining to women. However, in the last three years, things have turned around. Today, there are more jobs for women than the district can fill. What happened?

Krishnagiri/Chennai: Twenty-one-year-old R. Deepa had a traumatic childhood. Her parents separated when she was young and her father remarried. Unable to bear the torture meted out by their stepmother, Deepa and her elder sister filed a police complaint. Thereafter, the Tamil Nadu government took over their upbringing, as their biological mother, who worked as a cook in Chennai for a paltry salary of 5,000, could not take care of them. They were accommodated in a state-run hostel for girls and educated free of cost. Away from societal pressures, Deepa, who was keen to escape poverty, avoided early marriage—the girls in her village typically get married at 14 to 16 years of age. Instead, she completed a diploma in electrical and electronic engineering and scripted her own path.

In November 2021, Deepa got a job at Ola Electric, which manufactures electric scooters at Pochampalli in Krishnagiri district, about 40km from her village, Harur.

She works in the metallurgy Lab, earning a salary of 17,000 per month. “That was the first good development in my life," she says, choking back tears. Clad in a comfortable T-Shirt and jeans, attire that is very new for her, Deepa is now confidently looking to the future. And, why not? In the last two years, she has saved enough and got her sister married. She is also rebuilding her house, a thatched affair she shared with her maternal grandfather until a few months ago.

Deepa is not the only one whose fortunes have changed. In the last three years, thanks to a spate of investments by Ola Electric, shoemaker Fairway Enterprises, precision component manufacturer Tata Electronics and many others, the lives of 40,000 girls in Krishnagiri and its neighbouring districts have been transformed.

Enrolment of girls into a college or a polytechnic has surged 89% in 2022-23 from the previous year. The average age of marriage has risen from 14 years to 21 years in the last two years.

Krishnagiri is among Tamil Nadu’s most underdeveloped districts and ranks poorly on almost all social parameters, especially those pertaining to women. It has a sex ratio of 929 women to 1,000 men, much lower than the state average of 996. This is because sex determination and abortions are rampant. Girls are rarely educated beyond the 10th standard and female literacy is at just 57%. Child marriage is common, and so are teenage pregnancies. Infant mortality, at 12 per 1,000 births, is much higher than the state average of 8.2. There is a deep-rooted belief that men are superior.

“Women have no respect or say in the family as they are seen as a liability," explains K.M. Sarayu, the collector of Krishnagiri district.

Successive governments have tried their best to improve the condition of women, with limited success. “The recent investments and the jobs they are offering are creating a significant tailwind for government efforts and accelerating the change," says T.R.B. Rajaa, minister for industries, investment promotion and commerce in the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) government.

T.R.B. Rajaa, minister for industries, investment promotion and commerce, Tamil Nadu.
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T.R.B. Rajaa, minister for industries, investment promotion and commerce, Tamil Nadu.

Consider this: Enrolment of girls into a college or a polytechnic has surged 89% in 2022-23 from the previous year. The average age of marriage has risen from 14 years to 21 years in the last two years. Child marriage may not have stopped but it has dropped sharply. The families now respect women—their newfound financial independence has given them a say in family affairs and over their own lives. It is only a matter of time, experts say, before the sex ratio, per capita income and other social parameters of the district improve.

“Krishnagiri’s destiny is all set to change because of industrialization," says Sarayu.

Second wave

This is not the first time Krishnagiri has seen industrial investments. In the 1980s, Hosur emerged as the district’s industrial hub, taking advantage of its proximity to Bengaluru, just across the border. Big names such as TVS Motor, Ashok Leyland, Sundram Fasteners, Titan, TTK and Caterpillar, to name a few, have their factories in Hosur. These were hardcore engineering jobs—barring Titan, they started off by predominantly employing men (the share of women in their workforce has risen in recent years). While they offered blue-collared jobs to locals, it did little to lift the condition of women.

The second wave of industrialization has gone beyond Hosur and is doing the opposite. “In the last few years, investments worth 20,840 crore have been made in the district. These investments have created a lot of jobs specifically for women," says V. Vishnu, managing director and chief executive officer (CEO) of Guidance, Tamil Nadu’s single-window investment promotion arm. Ola employs 2,500 women at its plant, called Futurefactory. Its assembly line is entirely staffed by women, who produce as many as 40,000 e-scooters a month. Next door, Fairway Enterprises has 6,000 women workers producing shoes for global customers. Some 70km away, Tata Electronics, which makes components for handset makers such as Apple, employs about 14,000 workers, again mostly women, state government officials say. Tata Electronics and Fairway didn’t speak to Mint for this story.

Bhavish Aggarwal, founder, Ola Electric.
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Bhavish Aggarwal, founder, Ola Electric. (Bloomberg)

“When we were setting up the Ola Futurefactory, the representation of women in the manufacturing sector was minimal, especially in the automobile sector. We decided to break this status quo. We believe that women are not only more productive but are also more capable in terms of dexterity, flexibility, and learning agility," says Bhavish Aggarwal, founder, Ola Electric. Also, empowering women with economic opportunities improves not just their lives but also the lives of their families and the community as a whole, he adds.

The women, it appears, have delivered. “This decision has reaped rich operational dividends for us," says Aggarwal. Ola has seen lower absence rates and women have demonstrated significant multi-skilling capabilities. Aggarwal is betting on women for Ola Electric’s future expansion. “As we ramp up our production capacity for scooters and get into newer categories, we will expand our women workforce further," says Aggarwal.

This success is drawing more investments into the district. “At the recently concluded Global Investors Meet in January, we received an investment commitment to the tune of 30,116 crore for Krishnagiri district. They (the pledged investments) have the potential to create 85,379 jobs," Guidance’s Vishnu adds.

In the last few years, investments worth 20,840 crore have been made in the district. —V. Vishnu

Welfare tailwinds

“You are better off being a girl these days," says C. Nageshwaran. “Job opportunities are aplenty compared to boys," he adds. Unable to get a decent job, he runs his own taxi. But Nageshwaran is not too unhappy as his wife is a beneficiary of the change—she works at Taiwanese component maker Delta Electronics, which recently started manufacturing operations in the district.

Welfare officials in the district administration are the happiest. The jobs, salary and financial empowerment of girls has made their job easier. “Krishnagiri district is ranked poorly on most social parameters for a reason. Their mindsets are still rooted in old ways," says Sarayu.

K.M. Sarayu, the collector of Krishnagiri district.
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K.M. Sarayu, the collector of Krishnagiri district.

The foremost responsibility of K. Vijayalakshmi, the district social welfare officer, is to prevent child marriages, and that often leaves her exasperated.

“We monitor the girls very closely at school. Even if they are absent for a few days, we visit their homes to check on them," she explains. But the parents are smart. They find ways to hoodwink us and get them married. The threat of a first information report (FIR) and even the arrest of parents has had very little impact.

Ramesh Kumar, deputy director—health, Krishnagiri, is in a similar predicament. Despite the government’s best efforts, the sex ratio of the district has failed to improve significantly. “Even educated parents want a male child," he says. They go out of their way to determine the sex of the foetus and terminate the pregnancy if it is a girl. There are mobile scanning vans and most scanning happens in mangroves or in nearby forests. “Even a daily wage labourer spends as much as 40,000 to scan and terminate a pregnancy," he adds.

That leads to other problems. Most often, the pregnancy is terminated illegally and that causes health issues later on—the maternal mortality rate is high. The only option is to find a better approach to create awareness, he says.

Targeted approach

The Tamil Nadu government has begun doing just that. Thanks to the spate of jobs on offer and the benefits they offer women, the state government is adopting a multi-pronged awareness programme to pave the way for them. Through schools, it is catching them young. “We have started career guidance from 9th standard," says K.P. Maheshwari, chief educational officer, Krishnagiri. “We have prepared a booklet asking students what they want to become and what they should study to get employed in factories like Tata Electronics or Ola," she adds. Kids are taught to look beyond marriage and become aware of the benefits financial independence offers them.

The parents are also counselled on the importance of educating the girl child, avoiding early marriage, and made aware of the numerous job opportunities that exist today. They are taught how to handle the societal pressure they will face for breaking with tradition.

Awareness apart, conscious efforts are being made to understand why some people in the district follow regressive paths and change mindsets. One of the main reasons, apart from cultural issues, for parents preferring early marriage is the safety of the girls. They leave for work early and return late. Instances of couples eloping in this district, which borders Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, are quite high.

 

We have started career guidance from the 9th standard — K.P. Maheshwari

To tackle this, the government has set up girls’ hostels and incentivizes parents who send a girl child to college. It has also come out with schemes that help girls choose a career and develop skills.

The change brought about by these efforts is very visible. In November 2021, S. Madhumozhi Anand took over as the principal of a village school in Kambainallur. On the very first day, she gave homework to the students. “The next morning, I was in for a shock," she recalls. “A group of parents came to protest. ‘If the girls have to study at home, who will do the household chores and feed the cows,’ they asked."

When she finally left the job at the end of 2023 to run a dance school in Krishnagiri town, the same parents came to her for advice on what courses their girls needed to enrol in to get good jobs.

This change in thinking is validated by the numbers. “Dropouts from school are almost zero this year and enrolment into higher education (colleges/diploma) has risen 89%," says Maheswari, the district’s chief educational officer.

Minding the gap

Today, the jobs created by the influx of investments far outnumber the women available to take on such roles in Krishnagiri district. And so, a desperate industry is casting the net wider. “Earlier, companies looked for graduates or diploma holders. Now, they are okay taking in someone who has passed the 10th standard and training them," says S. Deenadayalan, a human resources consultant who works in the district and identifies talent for employers.

Considering the future demand for jobs and the need to employ girls from faraway districts, the government is setting up large industrial hostels. On its part, industry is working closely with local polytechnics and engineering colleges to dovetail the curriculum to suit their needs.

These efforts are certainly not enough to meet short-term demand. Some companies have tried to bring women workers from other states but suffered high attrition. Naturally, poaching is on the rise.

 

Considering the future demand for jobs and the need to employ girls from faraway districts, the government is setting up large industrial hostels.

J. Saranya was working at TVS Motor’s three-wheeler plant in Hosur. She moved to Ola, which was closer to home, and offered better pay. As more jobs chase fewer girls, their stock is rising. To retain the girls, the companies offer a free ‘doorstep pick up and drop’ service, free food, good pay, daycare facilities, a career growth path, options to study while working, and so on. The exposure the girls receive is also teaching them to dream big, says Deenadayalan.

M.S. Bharathi (20) is an operator at Tata Electronics, inserting components in motherboards. Alongside her job, she is also pursuing a degree via correspondence. Bharathi’s earnings have lifted her family from poverty. She now aspires to become a lawyer. “I am waiting for my family’s finances to improve further and save enough money before I pursue my dream," she says. A few years ago, it would have been impossible for her to even dream of such a life.

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