I was born in a sleepy little village called Elapully in Palakkad and for the first 2.5 years of my life, lived a rustic unfettered existence in the care of my grandparents, looked after by a motley group of characters you’d find present in any Sathyan Anthikad drama. This group included maids and servants who had served our family for generations, shepherds, small time workers and so many others who brought joy to my first couple of years on earth.
After moving to Hyderabad later on, I became an annual visitor, spending all my summer vacations there and over a period of time, all these people were alienated from my sense of existence. They remained merely caricatures in my memory as people who had served our family for years. I had matured – my education had created insurmountable barriers between myself and these people. The class barrier suddenly became so obvious – the people who were playmates and companions in my early childhood had now become mere plebeians in my eyes.
Modern education and the economic changes in India since the 90s have broken many of the differences that arise due to vast differences in the working class. Caste is almost of no relevance in the modern age, except possibly when it comes to marriage. Religion is, of course, a much bigger thorn but as we work in a 24x7 environment, these barriers have broken and to quite an extent, office life (at least in the private sector) is bereft of too many caste and religious issues. It has created a class of people who can make money and learn to discriminate economically – the class rules roost here.
We all have maids or other servants (for want of a better word) who work 7 days a week in our houses. They do not have any PF/Gratuity and are not normally entitled to any official leaves. We do not care for them but the day they are absent, mind you, all hell breaks loose. Would you be surprised how many people do not even know the name of the people working in their houses or have any idea about their families? Now in a normal corporate scenario, that would not be a very endearing HR thought, right?
According to a study, "Invisible Servitude: An in-depth study of domestic workers in the world", by an organisation called Social Alert, there are an estimated 20 million women, children and men in domestic work in India. Of these, 92 per cent are women, girls and children, 20 per cent are under 14 years of age and 25 per cent are between the ages of 15 to 20. In Mumbai alone, this study (released in March 2000) estimated that there were six lakh domestic workers of whom 80,000 are full-time (http://www.indiatogether.org/2003/sep/ksh-domestic.htm).
Is the servant culture something which is against the spirit of humanity and equality? There are thousands of Indian homes where such a "servant culture" prevails – the kids grow up never picking up their clothes, never washing their clothes, never doing any work except eating, perhaps reading and definitely watching television. Aren’t we breeding a secondary class of citizens at our homes by allowing such a culture in our homes?
I think it was an article by Kalpana Sharma which made me realise that I did not know the name of my maid. I found it out but I still could not bring myself to ask her that – wouldn’t be an admission of my lack of concern for her? I know it is shameful but sometimes, we just do not realise the importance of these people who toil for us every day with no great incentive in life. After all, being employed as a menial worker or maid is not anyone’s idea of working oneself up the hierarchy.
A culture of servitude is being fostered upon each generation and it is important that parents realise that it is this upbringing that creates future class related schisms in our lives. We see a lot of youngsters working in Mumbai and elsewhere who bring home grown servants to work at their place. These are generational servants who have for years led lives where the only karma they have is working for their masters.
Servants have an invisible presence in our lives - a presence we have all learnt to take for granted. Everybody always complains about how lazy or unreliable their servants are and are very careless in passng judgements about them. In most Indian homes, servants may not eat the same food as their employers; forget the idea of even sitting together on the sofa or table. They do extensive labour and are routinely made to do extra chores for no extra pay.
Maids are excluded from labour laws – it is the informal sector and does not come under any legal scanner. The result of this exclusion is for everyone to see - long hours, bad pay, inhuman treatment, physical and sexual harassment. Since they are not even recognized as workers, there is no legal protection for them under Indian labour laws; they can only go to a criminal court.
Most of us, knowingly or inadvertently, tend to treat domestic workers as inferior beings. Many of us educated liberals have questioned this attitude in ourselves and attempted to be more democratic, but class notions are too deeply rooted in our culture to ward them off so easily. So, while we feel pained at the capitalistic society that cares two hoots for menial and blue collared workers, we remain totally oblivious to the people who work at our own place.
Unfortunately, the issue is not such a simple one – it is a fact that the haves will run the world and the have nots will have to submit to them. When the labour is in surplus and employment is limited, this remains an unrecognized industry that sustains and feeds a large number of people. But it is imperative that we also recognize the value of human life here - every human being deserves respect and it is upto us to ensure that we practice it and inculcate it in our children.
The laws alone cannot deal with this problem - constitution can only set laws but attitudes cannot be legislated. They say a society is measured by how it treats its most vulnerable. And I dare so, we are not earning any laurels on this front!!!