7 May, 2014
Urban women in India, regardless of class, face considerable danger and discrimination. Two urban women—Shruti, who is privileged, educated and well-employed and Sarita who is far less educated, informally employed, and struggling to live decently—share with Mukta Naik their awareness about rights and their candid experiences of negotiating with the government to access these.
Voice #1: Shruti, 36 yrs, HR professional
It’s not surprising that our discussion of citizen rights starts with access to utilities like water, electricity and sanitation. These are universal problems in urban India. As she mulls her answers, Shruti sits comfortably, soaking in the warm rays of the winter sun. “Living in a condominium, you don’t really face these issues,” she tells me. “When I lived in public housing before, we had lots of problems but we never approached anyone to solve them. We would just work around water supply timings or electricity outages,” Shruti adds.
The comfort of privatised services masks affordability concerns
Shruti’s choice to live in a gated community is one of the ways in which upper income Indians circumvent the messiness of interaction with public sector utility providers. Instead, they pay substantial maintenance charges to finance the diesel generator set that deals with power outages and the private tankers that augment municipal water supply.
In the areas of education and healthcare too, they don’t bother with the public system at all. Shruti’s children go to a private school and health insurance enables them to go to private hospitals. “Fortunately, with the kind of economic comfort that we are enjoying right now, we don’t need to worry about accessing government education. Similarly, we never felt the need to use a government hospital at any point of time,” Shruti tells me. However, she also worries about her future, adding, “I am aware that the cost of healthcare is steep. We do worry about how we are going to cover our healthcare expenses as we get older.”
Independence and inter-dependence
Many urban women in India are dependent on their menfolk, who possess the requisite IDs and paperwork to access services. As an HR manager in a technology firm, Shruti juggles work, home and her two young children and she sees sharing responsibilities with her husband as a necessity. “Our gas connection is in my husband’s name. He keeps track of the paperwork, when to order a new cylinder, etc. It’s a conscious decision to not get involved. I focus on other things,” she tells me.
“We both have all the IDs,” Shruti adds, counting them off—passport, voter card, Aadhaar card ( a new universal ID), and driving license, which she got renewed recently. Taking my chance, I press her for details of her experience at the local transportation office. “The general attitude of the staff in any government office is to work as little as possible,” Shruti tells me, adding, “When I went to get my license, they were so reluctant to give any information. The first reaction to any request is that it can’t be done. They don’t tell you how to solve the issue, what is the alternative.”
‘Information is power’: Myth or wishful thinking?
I had opened a can of worms! Out tumble several other experiences with government departments, experiences that left her amused, upset and angry but rarely satisfied. A few years ago, when her children were very small, the housing condo cut off her electricity for non-payment of dues. Unaware of the agreement between the landlord and the office and in the absence of her husband, Shruti mustered the courage to call the police. “There is a legal aspect to everything and people play around with it when they think you are ignorant. In this case, the cops came to my house, made sympathetic noises but did nothing! My husband had to come back and sort things out. Till then, I was helpless,” Shruti recounts.
In another instance, Shruti had to report the theft of a laptop from her office. “It was my first visit to a police station alone,” she tells me, recounting the lengthy questioning she was subjected to. “Finally, another person sitting there saw the helplessness on my face and asked the concerned officer to offer me a simple way around it. They needed a small change in how the complaint letter was worded. The five other staff sitting around, including the lady constable, stared at me and enjoyed my unease,” Shruti says, smiling ruefully.
Is our ignorance as women the real problem, I ask her and I am surprised by her forthrightness: “Yes, there are aspects that men in our society are more aware of. As women, we live in a secluded, secure bubble. If there is a situation, we assume the men will deal with it. We are conditioned to depend on them.” She is careful to point out, however, that government apathy may not be gender-specific: “I don’t think their callous attitude was because they were dealing with a woman. I think, with government officials, it’s habit!”
An unequivocal demand to make neighbourhoods safer
The rationalism of Shruti’s responses to accessing services contrasts sharply with the paranoia she feels about her personal safety as a woman. “I don’t feel safe going out at night. If I do venture out, I am taking a risk. I know that!” she tells me. Shruti talks about her own experience of being followed by car full of men in broad daylight and the eve teasing and ogling her house help faces everyday. “It’s all entangled, you don’t know where to pull the string to untangle the puzzle. The disparity between the educated, relatively affluent ‘us’ and the less educated, poorer ‘them’ is obvious. Everyone has access to information. Aspirations are high. This drives people to commit certain crimes whereas they wouldn’t have even thought of doing so 20 years ago,” she analyses. She offers some solutions too: “You cannot change people’s mind set, but it’s important to make women aware of self-defence, make the police more accessible. Often times, there is no mobile network in an area, or lighting is poor. Infrastructure needs to be improved.”
She admits ignorance about the new police helpline for women in the city, nor does she use phone safety apps for women, but she’s willing to try them. “Now that I know, I would not hesitate to call the helpline if someone followed me,” she says.
Negotiating realities for an empowered future
Shruti is representative of a breed of educated, urban Indian women who exude confidence. Despite their privileged situation, they also face their own gendered struggles. “Everyone is victimised in some way or the other, only the flavour changes. When women take a maternity break, for instance, the industry has a great deal of resistance in taking them back,” Shruti explains, “It doesn’t have to be verbal or physical abuse or mental torture.” Subtle forms of discrimination are entrenched within Indian society. Shruti points out that women will be expected to dress a certain way for a family wedding, whereas men can go as they please.
Be it sexual harassment at work or the barely veiled contempt of a government official, women like Shruti are increasingly aware that the stereotypes they have grown up with no longer hold good. They know that women need information, but they also need to be able to negotiate their realities. “I want to make my daughters capable enough to deal with situations like this,” she says by way of an example. “I want to teach them that they don’t always have to say yes to people, but it’s good to keep people happy because you are also expecting something from them. It’s symbiotic!”
The practicality and energy of women like Shruti is encouraging. It holds the promise of a better life for women in urban India.
Voice #2: Sarita, 40, security worker seeking employment
The first time I met Sarita, I was impressed by her confidence. She didn’t seem to belong here, among the many migrants I was interviewing for a research project in Gurgaon’s urban villages. She dressed well, spoke candidly and seemed like one of those people who are transitioning rapidly from poverty into the aspirational middle class segment.
That perception is challenged on my visit to her home last week. The tiny rented room she lives in with her family has peeling walls, a broken floor and no natural light. The battered TV is playing old film songs. Her husband, a security guard at a nearby mall, has just returned from work and is napping. And her two teenage daughters, who are busy with household chores, look as pale as death because they haven’t stepped out of that room for over two months!
The twin trap of vulnerability and honour
“Because it isn’t safe outside,” Sarita informs me. And, just like that, our discussion about women and citizenship gets off to sharp start. Sarita and her husband have worked in Gurgaon for the past several years as security guards, while their three children, a son and two daughters, lived and studied in Meerut, a city of 1.3 million 50 kms away from Gurgaon, where Sarita and her family now reside. The idea of migrating to Gurgaon is for Sarita, her husband and her son to earn a living, while the girls study. However, the girls aren’t in school yet. Private schools are expensive and unreliable and Sarita tells me that her daughters cannot join the government school system, which is known to be hostile to low-wage migrants from other States. Her reasons are different though. “The government school doesn’t have a good environment. Local girls are not touched, but migrant girls are harassed. I can see, all those from outside who live here leave their daughters at home in their villages and only bring their sons here,” Sarita tells me. “In our family, we cannot compromise with our izzat (honour). My girls are of good character. If someone troubles them, what can I do? If something bad happens, how will I show my face to my extended family? How will they get married?” she adds.
Such is the landscape of honour and fear in which Sarita and her daughters live. I ask the girls if they have been victimised in any way in the neighbourhood. “No, but we see things on TV, hear stories from the neighbours, so we prefer not to go anywhere,” the older one replies. “I sometimes ask my husband to take them up to the roof so they can get some sun,” she assures me, when I express concern about their health and well-being. I am struck by the peculiar situation of Sarita’s family. Upper caste Hindus from the conservative State of Uttar Pradesh, it is not poverty in itself but the feeling of vulnerability (enhanced by their migrant status) and the emphasis on honour that dictates the future of their daughters and denies them basic rights like education and personal freedom.
No way out: Facing workplace discrimination
To add to Sarita’s woes, she is currently unemployed. Between her son and husband, they make Rs 12000, but that’s not enough to pay a rent of Rs 3500 per month and sustain a family of five.
She tells me about her struggle to find a job. “I worked for three years as a lady security guard with RBS Bank through a security agency. It was a good job, but I was fired because the supervisor thought I was too friendly with some of the employees. Now, the only jobs available are frisking jobs at malls, but I don’t like that work and find it hard to stand for so many hours,” she tells me. She also faces discrimination of a kind that surprised me. “I went for an interview last month and the person who was interviewing me looked me up and down and said no, we are looking for someone younger and thinner,” she said, and the story repeated itself in subsequent interviews. For Sarita, working in a housing condominium is not an option either. “They didn’t have toilets for female staff, as they employ only one female security guard,” she tells me and her expression clearly expresses how demeaning her experience was. There is hardly any legal protection for informal or contract workers in the Indian system and if there is, Sarita hadn’t even considered it as a possibility.
If you are poor, you pay more for everything
Nor does it help that Sarita is unable to access subsidized healthcare or food because she does not possess papers that identify her as a resident of the State of Haryana, where Gurgaon is located. Back home in Meerut, Sarita and her husband have voter IDs and ration cards that allow them to access most services. Through a government scheme, they have been allotted a subsidised 25 square metre home a few years ago.
But here in Gurgaon, Sarita visits private clinics when she is unwell. “I do have a health card that I can use for the civil hospital here,” she tells me, “but there is so much running around there that I don’t go.” The doctor’s consultation costs her Rs 150 each time and medicines are extra. Groceries too are expensive as they are bought on credit, for which the shopkeeper charges extra for nearly every item they buy. Similarly, while they have a legitimate cooking gas connection in Meerut that entitles them to subsidised LPG, they pay higher prices for the illegal gas cylinders they use in Gurgaon.
Caught between a rock and a hard place
Despite her concerns for the safety of her girls, Sarita doesn’t see being a woman as a handicap. “My husband is sick off and on. I take care of everything in the family,” she tells me. She is aware of her entitlements and forthright in using them. Equally, she is aware and accepting of her limitations.
What she sees as her biggest challenge is the task of overcoming poverty. “We have no way to save money here in Gurgaon. Even if we take a few days leave, it eats into our reserves,” she says, adding that she would like to return to Meerut if they could save some money and set up a business there. That seems to be the ultimate dream. To return home, where her daughters can go back to school, where they can live in their own home and where they think their lives will be more dignified and less stressful.
“There are no jobs for women back there though,” Sarita tells me; nor is there lucrative work for men. This is what drove them to Gurgaon in the first place—a desperate need for livelihood and opportunity coupled with the fact that everyone they knew who had made a better life for themselves had done so by migrating to a larger city. For this better life, Sarita and her family were willing to face discrimination and scarcity.
I wonder, then, about the huge gap between dream and reality, between the possibility of living in Meerut and the necessity of living in Gurgaon. How Sarita chooses to bridge that gap will determine her future and that of her daughters.
Banner photo by Ekta Parishad