In June, 11 women who work together as sanitation laborers in India pooled their money to buy the equivalent of a $3 lottery ticket because they could not afford the cost individually.
Last week, they won. The jackpot was $1.2 million, or more than $700,000 after taxes — an enormous sum for workers who spend their days collecting household waste and building public toilets.
Lottery drawings are famous feel-good stories because they make people rich overnight, but these winners may be among the most deserving in history. Most were in debt after taking out loans for medical treatment, their children’s education, dowries or other essential expenses that they could not afford on a wage of roughly $3 a day.
“I’m swimming in debt, so this money will be a big relief,” said one of the winners, Leela K., 50, a mother of four daughters. “I will finally have peace of mind. But my tension will vanish only when the money comes into my account.”
Five of the winners also happen to be from social classes whose members were once deemed untouchable by the country’s hierarchical caste system. Ms. Leela, for example, is from the Dalit community, a class of about 300 million Indians whose members face widespread mistreatment and violence, even after winning a series of landmark constitutional protections over the years.
The 100 million-rupee lottery jackpot would not be a particularly big draw in the United States, where a $1.05 billion Mega Millions jackpot will be at stake on Tuesday night. But in India, a country with a per capita annual gross domestic product of around $2,400, it’s a colossal fortune.
The 11 winners were especially lucky because the southern Indian state of Kerala, which has run the lottery since 1967, had made the recent drawing a “bumper prize” edition, which increased the jackpot in honor of India’s annual summer monsoon.
Sheeja Karma, the director of the all-women municipal recycling program where the women work, told the broadcaster NDTV that they live in “very humble households fighting the harsh realities of life,” including the need to pay urgent medical expenses and marriage dowries for their daughters.
“The money from the lottery will help them overcome adversities and their current monetary difficulties,” KT Balabhaskaran, a senior sanitation official in Kerala, said by phone. “It may prove to be life-changing.”
Radha M.P., the sanitation worker who bought the ticket on behalf of her colleagues, said that she was reeling under heavy debts and had lost the equivalent of hundreds of dollars in financial scams.
“I decided to wait until the next morning after the results were announced to be able to check it with my mates,” Ms. Radha, 49, said by phone on Tuesday. “When I checked the winning number, it was the same as the ticket. But we could not believe it!”
To be doubly sure, she asked her boss to crosscheck the numbers. Once he had, he drove them straight to the bank to validate the ticket.
Ms. Leela said winning the jackpot was a relief because she was still paying off debts from a daughter’s wedding, as well as medical bills that another daughter had incurred after falling off a train, an episode that required multiple surgeries.
She said she did not plan to stop working — partly because she enjoyed it, but also because she could not afford to stop.
“There won’t be much left once I pay off all the debts,” she said.