A unique feature of housework in India is the employment of domestic help. To have another individual fetch you a glass of water from the kitchen is a luxury every Indian enjoys. In many households one member of the family definitely brings in a glass of water from the kitchen for the one who reaches home from work. There is a very significant name given to the women who perform this task. They are called housewives. In recent times I came across a new term that includes men: stay-at-home-parent.
Almost 50% of the adult population of India is unemployed. 20% of the Indian population lives below standards. I have seen what it means to live in shanties and slums. The makeshift arrangement with wood, tin and plastic is visible in many corners of the city, some are vast slum areas while some shanties are neatly merged with a peepal tree or a car shed in a colony. Those who live in these shanties work in the day time and enter under the tin shed only to sleep. A tin shed heats up the room to such an extent that no two members of the family can stay together inside in the day time. The spread of the pandemic in slums is clearly not because of neglect of hygiene. The inhabitants had to go out of doors, if not to fetch food, at least for a breath of fresh air.
My concern today is how the need for domestic help and the homelessness of poor people can be merged in a manner beneficial for both.
In my neighbourhood there are three families that live under a tin roof. Each family is a four member unit. There is also an old woman in one family who does not do any work. A few months ago the old man had died. All of us in the neighbourhood get paid services of one kind or other from these families. When the old man died, contributions were made for his funeral.
Recently I read in the news that loose bricks and concrete structures from a building under construction fell on the adjacent slums and injured three people. The tin shed is not an adequate protection. There was also news that a colony of labourers who had built kutcha houses in a plain field was ruined by a storm. It was a temporary stay for labourers working in a nearby farm. A stove caught fire and the storm blew it into a devastating blaze.
I have known families where a servant is expected to come in the morning and leave before nightfall. In these cases, the servant might have to live in an illegally occupied land belonging to the government. When I travelled to Mumbai, the taxi driver, who quickly identified us as tourists, proudly pointed out some unique buildings along the way. I noticed the slums and pointed it out to my daughter since she hadn’t seen ‘slums’ in her life. The taxi driver immediately felt ashamed of his city. He said, ‘this is one element of this big beautiful city that the government is unable to get rid of’. I noticed that most of the tiny buildings had ACs.
There has been a trend in government accommodations to construct a room next to the main building for a servant family. Many officials get accommodation in these houses and their servant family lives there. One or two members of the poor family earns a decent living by working as an attendant, a peon, a fruit seller or an ironing man and in most cases, the wife works in the house as a domestic help. She cooks food and cleans dirty dishes, mops the floor and so on. It depends entirely on the imagination of the official’s family how much household work they can extract from the poor family. There is a possibility of undue slavery but the poor family values the rent-free shelter.
When it is but habitual for Indian families to employ servants for bringing them a glass of water when they enter home after the day’s work, why not have an adjacent room for the servant family in the house they’ve built? I am aware of the presence of such rooms in many houses. It may be on the terrace, in the backyard, near the garage or just an ante-room. Many of these rooms, especially if these have not been part of the sanctioned architecture, have a tin roof but still it is safer for them.
There was a time when I wanted someone to take care of my baby when I went to work. I lived in a rented place in those days. One of the women who came looking for employment in my home was a young beautifully dressed woman in her twenties. She smiled at my baby and said, ‘I leave my little one in a crèche to come here.’ Instinctively, I did not select her for my purpose. I still do not know why. Was I hoping that the woman would go back home and not leave her child in the crèche if she were left unemployed?
I have also left my child in a crèche for some time. If my building had a servants’ room, the woman might have worked in all the five households by turn or there might have been two women or even a man and the whole family might have been employed enough to feed themselves while the shelter was rent-free. I know of families who even offer to pay the school fees.
Unemployment in India is always high when statistical data is collected on an official basis. Too many women and young educated adults constitute this. It is better to look at the census on poverty levels. If families are living in shanties and cooking in kerosene stoves, they are very poor. I think, those three families I know of, who have a tin+plastic shed to call home, cook on chulhas using charcoal and twigs as fuel. I have never gone inside but I have seen them collecting twigs and the one who is an ironing man, uses charcoals.
There is a need to think how poor families can be given rent-free shelter. It would be wonderful if every well-off household fostered a poor family and then their insistence on having someone fetch them a glass of water as service would even be justified.