//Behind every memsahib is a bai

Behind every memsahib is a bai

When it comes to the rights of domestic help, it’s time to wake up and smell the coffee. Unless, of course, we prefer to serve it ourselves, writes Farah Waria

‘‘Sushi for you, ma’am?’’ I nodded absently, my glance skimming the perfectly manicured lawn, with its stunning view of the Mumbai skyline. There were five gleaming shamianas serving five different cuisines—Italian, Continental, Thai, Mongolian and Chaat—a fresh juice bar for the health conscious, and a birthday cake that probably weighed more than the three-year-old who had just cut it, surrounded by nearly 200 of her befrocked peers.

‘‘Where’s your plate?’’ I asked my maid and surrogate of 10 years, Anu, who shrugged and held out a small cardboard box. ‘‘They gave this for us servants,’’ she explained. Inside was a handful of wafers, a bruised samosa, and one congealed jalebi.

Ironic, but for a nation literally smelted in the furnace of imperial racism, we are guilty of the most vicious form of apartheid the world has ever known. Worse, our victims are not even conscious of being victimised. They cook our food but would scarcely dream of sitting down at our table and sharing it with us. They make our beds and dust our furniture, but sleep on the floor and stay away from the sofas, in case their touch should soil them. They are entrusted with our kids, but not the crystal vase in our drawing room.

There are an estimated 80 million domestic workers in India, nearly a tenth of our population, many of them minors. More often than not, they put in a 16-hour day, seven days a week, month after month, for less than the price of a dinner at a not-so-fancy restaurant. Sans pension, perks or provident fund. Yet 60 years after Independence, the people who do our dirty work and help us with our most personal, intimate chores are not even recognised as workers.

Last week at a rally organised by the National Domestic Workers’ Movement (NDWM) in Mumbai, thousands turned up—with due permission from their masters, of course—to ask for minimum wages, a weekly off and reasonable working hours. No frills, just the bare bones of civil liberties. But the official response was deliberately vague. ‘‘We will look into the matter,’’ said Maharashtra Deputy Chief Minister R R Patil, who is naturally preoccupied with more important matters like minding Mumbai’s morals, banning books and closing down dance bars—besides working tirelessly to legitimise illegal buildings.

The NDWM, an NGO started 20 years ago by Belgian social activist Dr Jeanne Devos, reaches out to over two million domestic workers. Apart from holding the occasional rally, the organisation has also filed a PIL in the Supreme Court to point out that washing clothes and sweeping floors is indeed work, and that those who do it are not just ‘‘helpers’’ at the mercy of our charity, but workers entitled to the basic human rights due to all labour. Yet, four years after it was filed, the PIL is still languishing. And except for Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Karnataka who have grudgingly included household labour in their Minimum Wages Act, not a single state has adopted the Domestic Workers’ Bill which was drafted by the NDWM in 1998 to provide house workers with pension, provident fund, privilege leave and travel allowance, plus gratuity and bonus.

Moreover, while other categories of unorganised labour like plantation workers, beedi workers and mathadi porters have recently been recognised and provided with legal cover, the domestic ‘‘servant’’ is still a pariah.

In our flagrantly feudal society, no one is willing to sidestep the social pecking order that we have gratuitously inherited from history. Besides, cleaning toilets and making aloo tikkis does not contribute to the gross domestic product—at least not obviously—so why share our spoils with those who do?

Finally, domestic work has no glamour quotient, which is why a handful of unemployed bar girls in Mumbai grab national eyeballs, while a million exploited ayahs are quietly ignored. ‘‘Anyway, most of them are either liars or cheats who won’t think twice about stabbing you in the back. So why bother?’’ shrugged a Malabar Hill memsahib, at another of those birthday parties.

The point is, memsahibji, are we any better? We rob these people of their fundamental human rights, then cheat them into believing they don’t deserve any better. And we forget that for every domestic criminal there are thousands of others who come to our cities, alone, unsure, and painfully vulnerable, to wait on total strangers with no other defence than a silent hope that they won’t be mistreated. Besides, lets get real. Without the bai, there would be no memsahib. Like it or not, it’s time to wake up and smell the coffee. Unless, of course, we prefer to serve it ourselves.

FARAH WARIA, Indian Express,  Friday, January 20, 2006