“They”: The Less Equal

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By Nida Zareen:

“We eat first, they latter,
often out of food portioned out for them;
we live in the front , they in the back;
we sit on the chairs and they on the floor;
we drink from glasses and ceramic plates
and they from ones made of steel set aside for them;
we call them by their names,
and they address us by titles:
sir/ ma’am ,sahib/ memsahib…”

As I read this quote from “Maid in India” by Tripti Lahiri , I feel guilt-stricken. I had been thinking the lockdown would help stop the spread of coronavirus. However, it wasn’t until later that I realised the severe challenges the lockdown imposed on domestic workers.

While the virus and pandemic remain a threat to us all, it has also exposed the stark fault-lines in our society. Class, gender, and privilege have shaped how each Indian experiences the pandemic. COVID-19 and the consequent lockdown has pressed the ‘pause’ pause button on life in Harijan Basti, a congested slum near DLF Phase 5 in Gurugram, Haryana. It homes now-rendered-jobless women, (who previously earned their livelihood through domestic work), angry and abusive husbands, and constantly-pestering landlords, not to mention a restless desire to go back “home”.

The lockdown with its de facto social distancing norm has exposed how employers think domestic workers are potential carriers of disease. Despite corroboration that the initial coronavirus carriers were foreign-returned individuals.

I spoke to Basanti, a domestic worker who also lives in Harijan Basti. She and others like her say they had to undergo constant testing. It’s always the “them” who are “dirty” as they live in congested quarters and dingy lanes. It’s always the “them” who spread the virus, who need to be schooled in hygiene, who need a demonstration of hand washing, who need to be told to wear a mask and how, who need to be kept at a distance despite working in places like the kitchen and bedroom.

While the rich sahibs and madams can afford visits to malls, the chance of catching a virus, the privilege of getting proper medical treatment, and the time and sanitised space for a romanticised quarantine, domestic workers simply cannot. For them it’s a matter of life and death.

Sarita, one of the domestic workers of the basti, expresses her concern when a person in her building got infected with the virus and is now under isolation. The challenge still persists, since isolation is again a privilege they can’t afford. Many households in Harijan Basti have shared common washrooms.

As more high-class, rich, affluent, and posh buildings that fall into containment zones, the poor have to pay the price. Domestic workers like Sarita, Neeta, and Basanti lose their jobs. The phobia of touch, as supposed to contaminate young kids, is so strong that domestic workers like China are strictly prohibited from entering employers’ homes.

Restrictions put in place are again not in favour of domestic workers. Bharti feels they are a waste since she cannot move out and has to wait for her husband to return from work and bring her groceries. This only paves the way for dependency, idleness, and panic about the uncertain future.

Bharti is further worried for her one-and-a-half-year-old daughter and finds it difficult to confine her to the house. The same goes for Sharmeela and Sarita, who must limit their granddaughter and son, respectively, to their one-room accommodations, even when they go out for work.

When I spoke to Basanti last, she told me she wants to celebrate her grandson’s birthday, but with the prevailing situation, cannot.

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Is popular culture or media at all sensitive about the realities of domestic workers? Not, I think, in the least. Several celebrities have taken to Instagram to post videos of their doing bartan-jhadoo-pochha, and several revelled in images of their dear star idols ‘coming down’ to the ‘mortal realm’ to perform ‘mortal tasks’. People have taken to posting pictures of cleaners, sweepers, saluting the “#coronawarriors”, and urging people to stay put , because if “they” can that too with a “cheerful smile”, why can’t we, right? However, when we check our privilege, we get to see the class irony. “They” have not chosen their profession in the way that “we” do; “they” did not have the same access to education as “us”, or the power to demand dignity of their labour, and, least of all, to question how they live or work. The gig economy of kamwalis and bais does not credit domestic work as standardised work and hence it comes with no social security covers. Booking agencies like BookMyBai are guilty of running entitled advertisements, with its infamous tagline, “Diamonds are Useless/Gift your wife a Maid” and questionable policies regarding profiling workers on the basis of religion and region.

The pandemic may pass sooner or later, and many domestic workers will also be called back to work as they perform too important a function to let go of But when will the law recognise the dignity of their labour? When will they have a life outside their work? When will society acknowledge their sufferings? When will we count “them” as “us”?

When will we regard domestic workers as human, as equals?

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