Public show of strength

Last Updated : 18 November 2011, 16:42 IST
Last Updated : 18 November 2011, 16:42 IST

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Pratima Das’s voice shook as she began to speak: “I was 11 when a boy from my neighbourhood took me to his house, saying he loved me and wanted to marry me. But his family treated me badly — they would beat me and give me leftovers to eat. They also made me do all the household work. I wanted to get out of that mess and study.

Meanwhile, I gave birth to two girls. I became a mother even before I understood the responsibility. When I asked my husband to take me to my parents — I wanted to spend time with them — he agreed, but he took one of our daughters back with him. We spoke on the phone frequently, but two months ago he stopped calling me or taking my calls. He didn’t want to provide any financial support to me to raise my daughter. My parents are poor; they can barely make ends meet. How do I ask them to fund my education? I want to study to be able to earn for myself and for my daughter.”

Pratima, 20, works as a maid in Jaipur and it is she who set the tone for the first-ever public hearing of domestic workers in Rajasthan’s state capital. Over 3,000 women, most of who hail from West Bengal and are Bengali-speaking, had gathered at the city’s landmark Statue Circle recently to put forth issues of poor working conditions, wages, leave, domestic violence, violence at the workplace, and issues with the local police.

They did this in front of a panel comprising government officials, the police and trade union activists. There was Aditi Mehta, Principal Secretary, Social Justice and Empowerment Department; Jose Mohan, Deputy Commissioner of Police, Jaipur (South); Bhagwan Sahai Sharma, Member Secretary, State Social Welfare Board; and Anuradha Talwar of the Paschim Banga Khet Mazdoor Sangathan, Kolkata.

Police harassment was one grievance that most women expressed vociferously. Narrated an agitated Rekha Burman, 27, “I had been working in a house for nine months when one day my employer said that gold worth 10 tolas (1 tola = 10 grams) had been stolen and that I should return it. I told him that had I stolen anything, would I still come to work?” Burman thought that the mere fact that she was continuing to work there was reason enough for her employers to believe her.

But she was wrong. “The next day, he called the police, and asked me to go with them to give my statement. I went at 11 am and was there the whole day. They kept asking where I had stowed the stolen jewellery,” she went on. Despite the denials and even requesting them to let her go because she needed to breastfeed her infant, they didn’t relent. “I was allowed to go home only after a police officer, at whose home my relative works as a domestic worker, intervened. Next day, I went to my employer and asked him for payment. I said I would not work there anymore,” she said.

Burman can never ever forget that day. But she was not the only one who had such demeaning experiences to share. One afternoon when Panchmi, 35, came back to her home in a Jaipur basti she got the shock of her life when she saw that someone had ransacked the premises. Everything was strewn. On further inquiries, she was told that one of her employers had come there with the police in search of a gold chain they suspected her of lifting.

An extremely hurt and angry Panchmi went the next day to ask her employer to pay her wages because she did not want to work there. “They asked me to come back the next day but when I went, she refused to give me the money. Some days later, I went with 8-10 women to put pressure on her but she called the police, who took us to the police station. They said that first we commit crimes and then create a nuisance. We were only released in the evening.”

It was a sultry afternoon and as woman after woman got up to narrate chilling accounts of maltreatment and abuse  —  some of them spoke in their native tongue, Bengali — inside the bright red tent, the mood began to heat up: The start had been a somewhat subdued one, but as time went by the voices grew louder and bolder. “We have proof of residence back in Cooch Behar, West Bengal, but we are denied rations and identity cards.

This prevents us from availing of government schemes for the poor. We are not allowed to use the toilets in the homes we work in; we are not allowed to drink water from the glasses we clean. The police are always suspicious of us and many a time hand-in-glove with employers. We run two homes — yours and ours — and no one can do without us. Still we are denied wages, abused, sometimes physically, too. There is no one to listen to us,” they cried in unison.

Besides police harassment, the other major issue that emerged was the non-payment of wages. Anjali Rai had something to say on this, “It’s been a year since my teenage daughter, Shikha, stopped working at a Gopalpura house but she is yet to receive the Rs 2,500 due to her.” She added that her daughter’s employer suffered from eczema and she was often asked to scratch her body.

She found it difficult, even nauseating, but she helped out. Eventually, Shikha couldn’t carry on for more than a month. Rai said, “When I went to her employer for my wages she asked me to come back in two days. When I went she told me that until I found her a replacement, my wages would not be given.”

While the public hearing did provide these tough women — the lifelines of Indian middle-class households today — with a platform to talk of their troubled lives and also grab the attention of those who could bring about some significant change, this was not all that was achieved that afternoon.

The interaction was as much about understanding the problems of these workers as it was about informing them of their rights and legal entitlements. Speaking in Bengali, Aditi Mehta of the Social Justice and Empowerment Department, explained the process by which women could obtain proper identity cards and said that she would ask her department to organise a special camp to facilitate this. Acknowledging that social security was every citizen’s right she said that she would convey the women’s problems to the government and work out some solutions.

All those who eagerly awaited DCP Mohan’s response, too, were not disappointed. While he was silent through the narratives, once they were done his first promise was that he would look into all the individual cases of violence and illegal detention. Then, to facilitate a fair interaction between the police and the domestic workers, he suggested that visits to police stations be organised for the women. His final advice: ‘Always dial 100 when you are in trouble’.

For her part Kolkata-based trade union activist, Anuradha Talwar, said that she would ask the Mamta Banerjee government to speak with the Rajasthan government about the portability of ration cards. Calling their struggle for an increase in wages a legitimate fight, she acknowledged that the existing minimum wages fixed by the state government was very low.

For domestic workers in Jaipur, the struggle has just begun. Talking about it was the first step. Now it’s time for action. As Mewa Bharti of the Rajasthan Mahila Kamgaar Union, who had coordinated the event, put it: “This was just one display of power.” There is much more to come.

Published 18 November 2011, 16:42 IST

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