Ramu kaka- the quintessentially loyal, doting domestic help as portrayed in Hindi cinema is a vanishing breed in Bhopal. Alternative employment opportunities, the social stigma associated with working in homes and the changing demographics of the city have all taken a toll on Ramu kaka as well as those who benefited from him.
Old timers in the city point out that the setting up of big plants like BHEL and industrial areas in Mandideep and Govindpura attracted industrial labour from areas around Bhopal. The men folk worked at the factories and the women found employment as maids in households. Nepali settlers also came to Bhopal in big numbers till the 1970s and many of them worked as domestic helps. Families in old Bhopal relied on the local population itself to meet their requirements. Till the 1970s, many could afford to keep a cook, an assistant to the cook- called the masalchi and separate staff for cleaning, washing and gardening. It was from the 1980s and early 1990s that the crisis set in.
While female domestic helps are still easier to come by, full time domestic helps and those who can stay at home 24x7 are most difficult to come by. "I have been searching for a nanny to take care of my 4-month-old baby but have not been lucky as yet. I have tried out websites, references and contacts but nothing has worked out," says Prerna Singh Rathore, who has moved to Bhopal from Orchha.
Post liberalisation many job avenues opened up for people. Working at a house was not the most glamorous job and neither was it well paying. Those working as domestic help desired upward mobility and took up jobs as office boys, drivers etc. In India where the father's profession almost always determines what the son would be doing, the next generation of domestic helps was not keen to follow their fatherfs footsteps.
The Mahatma Gandhi national rural employment guarantee scheme (MNREGS)- the union governmentfs flagship employment program for rural areas is said to have arrested to some extent the migration of population from rural to urban areas. This is said to have contributed to the non-availability of manpower for domestic work in the urban areas. However not everyone agrees with this. "MNREGS has not done much to arrest the migration of rural population to urban areas. It is a myth floated by the government. The scheme has barely been able to provide 35 days of employment as against 100," says Yogesh Kumar of voluntary agency Samarthan. He offers another reason for the crisis in availability of domestic helps. "Cities are losing their inclusive nature. Roads are being widened; malls are being constructed on land that had slums and shanties. It is more difficult for the poor to survive in cities these days. Also, wages of domestic workers have not increased in the same proportion as those of other groups," says Yogesh.
The last few years have also witnessed an in situ and ex situ relocation of shanties in Bhopal. Major settlements like the Ishwar Nagar near Habibganj station, Sanjay Nagar, TT Nagar dussehra maidan slum, Abbasgarh at Arera Hills, Sajida Nagar, Shakir Nagar, Om Nagar have been moved to the outskirts of the city. The shanties housed people who worked in houses but were resettled at places from where it was very difficult for them to continue working at the houses where they worked earlier. "Sanjay Nagar that made way for the DB mall mostly had people working in homes as domestic helps. When they were shifted to Gehukheda, they lost their jobs and the houses that employed them lost the help they had," said Abdul Jabbar, convener of the Bhopal gas peedit mahila udyog sangathan (BGPMUS). Jabbar also says that employers too do not want to pay adequate wages to domestic helpers. "A lot of people now prefer working in gulf countries, not that it is easier working there but at least the remuneration is better," says Jabbar.
According to Yogesh Kumar had the sector been organised, had salaries increased in proportion and if dignity of labour had been attached to working at home, the social stigma associated with working at home would have reduced to an extent.
The crisis has presented itself as an opportunity for some young entrepreneurs who have set up firms that specialise in providing these services to people. Vipin Prajapati of Total Solutions, an Indore based firm that provides maids, nannies, patient care takers, domestic helps, gardeners and drivers says, "As corporate culture is spreading in smaller towns in India, people seek professional help to take care of their household." Mostly with the husband and wife both being employed, the need for employing someone for household work has increased tremendously. Total Solutions in based in Indore but provides services in Bhopal too. It claims to have 5,000 personnel with varying expertise registered with it. "Those seeking employment through us are registered and documents establishing their identity are taken by us for verification. Security is an important aspect in the business and a thorough search is carried out on the person seeking employment through the agency," says Prajapati.
The manpower to be recruited through the agency is partially trained and learns mostly on the job. The agency through which recruitment is done charges a one time fee from the employer for facilitating the meeting between the employee and employer. The salary of the recruited staff is then paid directly by the employer. Prajapati set up this company in 2010 and says it has only grown subsequently. "Most people who are new to the city prefer agencies to recruit people for working at their household because it ensures safety, which is a major concern," adds Prajapati.
Ashish Grover of Hawk Eye Security Services says that the norms put in place by the government have put a lot of responsibility on the agency. "The agency could be held responsible in case something goes wrong," he says, adding that many people realise the potential of providing household services as a lucrative business but shy away from it because of the responsibilities involved.
Sonil Agarwal, who has just moved to Bhopal from Delhi, says that availability of female domestic helps for cleaning and cooking was much more in Delhi. "In Delhi, I found the maids to be quicker at their work and better trained but Bhopal is cheaper. Maids charge almost half of what they charged in Delhi, but Bhopal is more personal. Here a maid talks to you and even does a bit of extra work, which is unimaginable in Delhi," she said.
Some efforts have been made at the state level to train domestic helps in household work. The ITIs are offering short duration courses for women domestic helps under a scheme titled the chief ministerfs working womenfs training program. A lot still remains to be done by way of backward forward linkages to enable the trainees to secure jobs once they have completed their training. The program is yet to be replicated in all districts of the state, as envisaged originally.
While some domestic helps have been the stuff of legends who have served their employers loyally through thick and thin, there have also been numerous instances in Bhopal where the domestic helps have turned against their employers, have assaulted them with the intention of robbery or have even murdered their employers out of anger. An elderly lady was killed by the family's domestic help in the Char Imli area some years ago who fled to his native village after the incident. On October 2011, a maid was arrested after she was found spiking the household food with urine. She was arrested after the employers installed CCTV cameras in the household to find out the mystery behind many articles going missing in the house.
Police have often been asking employers to get their domestic helps registered at the local police station. The registration acts as deterrence and would also help in nabbing the accused- in case a crime is committed.
Associated with the issue of domestic helps committing crime is the issue of atrocities on domestic helps by their employers. Physical and sexual exploitation of the domestic workers, especially minors, has also come to light. "A lot of times people prefer engaging an under age person to work in their houses. This helps them save money because an underage and untrained person comes at a lower salary. Atrocities on children who work in houses and violent reactions by them are also known to happen," said DIG, Bhopal, Yogesh Chaudhry. He added that as Bhopal is growing, the crime patterns emerging are also similar to metros where nuclear families or both young and the elderly are more susceptible to crime by domestic helps. The union government plans to bring female domestic helps under the ambit of the domestic violence law.
The state government has attempted to address the issues pertaining to domestic workers. Chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan held a panchayat of female domestic helps in October, 2009 with the intention of organising the sector and providing safeguards against exploitation. To begin with it was decided that identity cards would be issued to female domestic workers. The registered workers would be eligible for an insurance, maternity benefits, financial help during marriage of girl child, training in household chores through ITIs, contributory pension, training for making candles, achars, papad etc, free textbooks for their children and fair wages. A slew of scholarships for the children of maids were also announced. The state government also promised 45 days salary to maids during pregnancy, 15 days salary to husbands of maids during pregnancy and Rs. 1000 for buying laddus and nutritious diet.
Presently, while the part time training at the ITIs has kicked off, the remaining measures have not been implemented.
The workers themselves have also not organised themselves for collective bargaining. One has not come across a union of maids or domestic helps that could help them leverage their position in the job market. "Female domestic helps have not really formed a union but work together informally. For eg, in a particular area, they ensure that the wages chargeable for a particular task do not go below a certain level," said Anuradha Saboo, a resident of Arera Colony.
Private vs govt sector:
"A full time domestic help is a luxury almost only available to those employed with the government," said an owner of an industrial unit in Govindpura not wishing to be named. "Even as income levels have gone up in the private sector there is not enough manpower available from where people can employ domestic helps," he added. According to him the main reason for this crisis was that those employed at high positions in the government- were not affected by this crisis and hence do not do anything about it. "At the risk of sounding politically incorrect- I think the retinue of servants at any officersf house is comparable to a mini army. Over the years, the number of domestic helps assigned to any officer has gone up almost in the same proportion as the salary," he said.
Almost every government department has a system of engaging contractual labour, some of whom find themselves working at the houses of officers. Many casual labourers also prefer temporary employment in government over private sector because there is a possibility that they may get absorbed as permanent employees. "Many people in the forest department on daily wages have been confirmed as forest guards. Their salary and other benefits have gone up tremendously," said an employee leader.
"Between the three All India Services- IAS, IPS and IFS- it is the IPS that is best placed as far as availability of manpower for domestic work is concerned," said an IAS officer on condition of anonymity. It is an open secret in the state capital that the Commandant of the 7th Battalion of the SAF is on speed dial with the wives of officers as it is the Commandant of this battalion who assigns staff for home duty. While IAS and IFS officers posted in the field have access to vast hordes of manpower for domestic work, a posting at the mantralaya in a junior position robs them of this luxury. They have to then rely on the corporations and boards under the state government or batchmates to provide them with domestic helps.