In her nine years as a nurse working with rescued domestic workers in Delhi, Mariamma K. thought she had seen the worst. That was until 2010, when she and her colleagues went to rescue a 17-year-old girl from a home in west Delhi. Sangeeta was found with bite marks all over her body. “We were completely shocked. We didn’t know if we were looking at an animal or a human,” recollects Mariamma, who works with Nirmala Niketan, a group fighting for the rights of house-helps.
Her employers initially claimed, quite incredulously, that she was biting herself but that didn’t explain the marks on her neck. They then changed tack—the lady of the house was deemed unstable. “But we didn’t buy that either. Why did she bite only her help and not her children?” argues Mariamma. The matter was later “settled” out of court. The girl’s family got Rs 50,000, after which she was sent back home to Assam.
Mariamma may still be able to recount the worst case of abuse she’s ever seen, but it’s not that easy for volunteers at Delhi’s Domestic Workers’ Forum. For it could be Veena from February last year, whose employer literally chose to dig in her heels—rather, her stilettos—into her back. Or what about Shobha, a 15-year-old from Jharkhand, whose employer, a nurse, branded her chest with a hot iron? Or Hasina from West Bengal, a minor salvaged from a bureaucrat’s house in November last year, whose private parts had been repeatedly prodded with a rolling pin?
This is especially true of a nouveau riche middle class who seem to have no empathy with the poor. In fact “most think that by employing a maid, they are doing some service...feeding the poor. There is a lot of aggression, anger among these people”, says social worker Rishi Kant who has helped rescue many such girls. “At some houses, the employers actually ask us why we are taking them away when they are at least being fed there....” Another activist, Rakesh Senger, adds “They think they are doing these kids a favour if they pay them Rs 1,000 a month, give them second-hand clothes and feed them scraps.”
Namita Haldar What does it say about India’s rising middle class that in the dozen-odd houses that Namita works in, she is not allowed to use the bathroom in even one? Still, she must count herself lucky—the indignities others suffer extend to physical abuse. (Photograph by Sandipan Chatterjee)
Given the recent flare-ups and the outrage (at least in the media), it is a relationship that many now openly characterise as that between a modern master and slave. These are reflected even in minute dealings with the help. Take, for example, the case of Namita Haldar in Calcutta, who works in several homes but is not allowed to use the toilet facilities in any of them. “It doesn’t occur to us to treat them like humans because it is deep-rooted in our psyche to somehow consider them less than human. Just because we are paying them, people think they should get their money’s worth, right down to the last penny,” says Kakuli Deb of Parichiti, a city-based rights group.
Most of this subjugated workforce, of an estimated 90 million domestic workers in the country, comes from impoverished regions in states like Jharkhand, Bengal and Chhattisgarh. It’s no surprise that a substantial number of them are trafficked into big cities to spruce up urban homes, smoothen out the harried lives of city-dwellers. West Bengal alone reported as many as 8,000 missing girls in 2010 and 2011. Hapless girls from the tribal regions are especially in demand, says Sanjay K. Mishra, who helps rehabilitate rescued domestic workers. “They are simple and innocent and, crucially, without a support structure. So abuse is rarely reported.” Often the parents have no idea where the girls have been taken by agencies and, being illiterate, they are open to all sorts of exploitation.
Feeding on this vast market are the numerous, obscure ‘placement agencies’ (some 2,300 in Delhi alone). Employers pay these agencies to hire a help and, in most cases, pay the monthly salary also to the agency instead of the worker.
And while child labour may have a stigma attached, even today most people tend to look the other way. In Calcutta, Mukul Das, who runs a small business in busy Gariahat, says “maid children” are more “obedient”. His last one, 8-year-old Shefali, would clean, sweep, cook and then sleep on the floor. It was apparently a great bargain. Last year, 116 ‘workers’ were rescued from middle-class homes in Delhi; only four of them were over 18. A survey in Mumbai two years back found nearly 60,000 girls between 5-14 employed as domestic workers.
Chandni Still only 18 years old, she was raped repeatedly by her employer’s father-in-law in Amritsar. To add to her woes, she was raped again in Delhi by a man who had promised to help her. And for her years of work, she didn’t get paid a paisa. (Photograph by Jitender Gupta)
Ironically, even those in positions to make the lives of workers better are not above inflicting abuse. Recounting one such case, the head of the Andhra chapter of the National Domestic Workers Movement describes how two children were tortured at a retired dig’s home in Hyderabad. The girls, aged 14 and 15, were employed to look after the retired cop’s grandchild. Once when the child was found wandering close to the swimming pool, the dig punished the maids by making them stand neck-deep in the pool an entire night. “When the children managed to escape from the house, the officer filed a case accusing the girls of stealing jewellery. Investigations instead revealed that the girls were physically tortured.”
Maniroopa A minor from Tanger village near Ranchi, she suffered much abuse in Delhi. Later, rescued and trained by an NGO. (Photograph by Jitender Gupta)
A major problem with the domestic worker market is the scarce information agencies provide of workers that makes exploitation easier. “Every agency should give a full record of the help they provide. Is she a goat or a showpiece that you can just buy and keep in your home? And if you do employ one, why should it not be recorded somewhere?” asks Subhash Bhatnagar, coordinator of the National Campaign Committee for Unorganised Sector Workers.
While a draft bill to protect the rights of domestic workers was ready as far back as 2008, it’s still lying with the National Commission for Women (NCW). “It’s going to take a long time before it gets enacted into law...many of the decision-makers themselves depend on domestic workers. I won’t be surprised if some of them even employ child workers,” says Bharti Sharma, ex-chairperson of the Delhi Child Welfare Committee.
Similarly, legislation in states too has been stuck. Clara, coordinator of the Tamil Nadu Domestic Workers’ Union, says she had lobbied with a DMK minister in 2007 to fix Rs 30 per hour as minimum wages, but the decision was postponed. “Early last year, the minister told me the decision was further delayed since elections were approaching and the government did not want to antagonise the employers.” Union representatives who met the labour secretary in March were informed that the “issue is under process”. Everyone knows that legislation can take its time but that hardly permits middle-class homes from being zones of inequity and oppression in a free and independent India.
(Names have been changed in most cases to protect privacy)
The Organ Grinders
By Debarshi Dasgupta with Dola Mitra, Pushpa Iyengar, Madhavi Tata, Chandrani Banerjee and Amba Batra Bakshi
Apropos of your cover story Inside Slave City (Apr 23), restricting the problem to the middle class alone is like taking down easy targets. The class above the middle can afford iron curtains: they are the ones who don’t even hesitate to kill and dump their hapless servants. Such brown sahebs are aplenty. And what about the landed jagirdars, the fake babas, the unscrupulous industrialists etc who specialise in ‘bonded labour’? It’s a fact of life, we Indians excel at exploiting the weak and the poor. When I see these ladies shouting on TV about “soft” subjects like maids, I get the feeling they are the worst exploiters. For they cannot do without their maids, and they probably haggle over each penny that they pay them.
M.L. Gupta, Delhi
Homo hierarchus, as Dumont puts it, that is what we Indians are. No amount of patriotic outrage can absolve us of this charge. As Dr Ambedkar pointed out, the utter lack of equality is the Great Tradition of India.
It’s part of the Indian character, we have no compassion, nor do we value human life as such. And anyway, we have that biggest shield, religion, working for us.
Kel Shorey, Glasgow
There is something rotten in the heart of our middle class. On my India visits, I generally try to minimise my contact with this so-called educated lot. I prefer the rickshawallahs, boatmen etc, they are much more genuine.
Pradip Singh, Stafford, UK
It’s the absence of an institutional mechanism to regulate the activities of these ‘placement agencies’ which has led us to this pass. Combined with our dunderhead social welfare boards and the hafta police, it’s a recipe for disaster.
A.K. Saxena, Delhi
You guys are always on this high pedestal. I’d like to know how the domestic helps working in the homes of various Outlook staffers are faring. Are they treated fairly, are they paid adequately, do they get vacations and casual leave?
Just goes to show we are a dog-eat-lesser dog society. The netas and the elite exploit the middle classes, they in turn wreak havoc on the less fortunate. The irony is that during the Raj when bonded labour had official sanction, the Brits still treated Indians better than how 21st century desis treat their countrymen today.
Pankaj Vaishnavi, London
This is a manifestation of how we are evolving as ‘modern people’, living in luxury at the cost of fellow humans. Cannibals don’t turn modern just by using forks and spoons.
A. Sharma, Thakurdwara, HP
As someone working in the field of bonded labour, I am glad for the article. It spoke to the heart of the issue—workers must enjoy every right granted to citizens and laws must ensure they are protected from such brutal injustice.
I wonder if it’s simply the case that such outrage now has a chance of getting media attention whereas 25 years ago it wouldn’t have gotten a second look. Also, is a gender factor working here? Poor women have fewer job opportunities and are hence more vulnerable to domestic abuse.
Vivek S., New Haven, US
Our society is not led by right, but by might. We are not civilised enough for Edgar Allen Poe’s dictum, “Fearless to the strong, humble to the weak”.
V. Tholibangan, on e-mail
Your story was excellent, we at Nirmana salute you for this coverage. To be frank, we had tears in our eyes.
Subhash Bhatnagar, Delhi
I don’t think there exists another culture so capable of discrimination as our “5,000-year-old legacy”. That said, it’s now a pan-South Asian thing, cutting across all barriers—anyone who has the remotest chance to create a hierarchy, even if for a fleeting moment, does so and discriminates on that basis, even if for a moment in time.
Arun M., Bangalore
Our maid’s four-year-old son who studies in a Colaba school (which was visited by US president Obama and his wife) just brought his report card. A score of 96%. Everything else may remain unequal, but give a child a good education and he’ll get an equal shot at life.
Ashok Lal, Mumbai
Sorry about the typo : that should read ANY JOB, FOR THAT MATTER, IS INHUMAN TO THE EMPLOYEE AND FAVOURABLE TO THE EMPLOYER.
This article has ASSUMED that 'house-maids are treated shabbily'. And some readers have devoured that assumption without question.
However, one needs to introspect. ANY JOB, FOR THAT MATTER, IS INHUMAN TO THE EMPLOYEE AND FAVOURABLE TO THE EMPLOYEE.
But it is the MARKET FORCES that eventually determine 'equality' here. If someone does not WANT to do a job, he/she is free to choose not to do it.
However, these 'victims' too, have classes, it seems. A hard working male labourer working in the hot sun, for eg., does not have a voice in the media as a woman in a home.
For the leftists and anti-male chauvinists, this media assumption seems unquestionable.
"What is it that makes the Indian middle class treat their domestic help with such derision and abuse?"
Our culture and not to forget we have practised for 5000+ years as we so fondly like to remind ourselves and the world. In old times/rural-areas there was many times a deeply feudal but a paternalistic mai-baap relationship between the served and the server. In new urban-times that paternalism is also lost, nothing to replace it and we are left with deeply feudal practices and horrendous ill-treatment/discriminatin day-in day-out. BTW, we all do it - everyday - day-in day-out - may be not to our maid/servant but to someone who is just expected to exist only to serve us, period.
Our ability to discriminate based on minute (micron level) heirarchies is legendary - I don't think there there exists another culture so capable at this (South African apartheid was childs play compared to what we are capable of). we keep creating new and improved heirarchies everyday. When we meet someone - almost the instinctive first thing we do is arrange them in a heirarchy above or below us and then it starts - language, body language, everything about the interaction determined by the heirarchy. If there was a Nobel prize for the "art of discrimnation" we would be "lifetime receipients" of it. We can easily convince ourselves without remorse (i.e., justifiable discrimination) that someone else is just so below us that they are practically non-human/sub-human. BTW, I don't think it is about the middle class though. It is a pan-South Asian thing - cuts across caste (except for may be those truly at the just the bottom pit), class, language, region, religion - anyone who gets the remotest chance to create a heirarchy even if for a fleeting moment creates one and discriminates on that basis, even if for a moment in time.
As a corrolary, that is why we feel discriminated so very easily too and get all hot and prickly about it.
As they say, the most sublime and the most horrendous all exists within us. Solutions - practically none - as we like to believe we are great and like that ONLY (of course - without NO and/or ONLY we couldn't be desis would we?).
While cases of house-hold abuse are rampant, the fact that hardly anyone at all gives basic employee rights to maids is also shocking. How many of us give them monthly or even weekly offs? Do we ensure that we give them a sustainable raise periodically? I am not even going into PF and pension benefits, just talking of basic HR practices that should be followed. If we as employess expect so much from organisations we work for, why should we behave differently when somebody else expects that from us? Are most of us hypocrites?
It's time now that "Outlook" at least gives attention to the cases of Afreen and Falak who were victimised and battered to death by their own father.It is hopeless to expect anything from the government that they can do anything genuine for the downtrodden children in the country and curb the issues of social discrimination and rampant illegal female infanticide despite lofty promises."Outlook" might win millions of hearts if it allows some space to highlight that to bring a revolution.
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