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Made In Chandigarh

Dressed in a crisp cotton salwar kameez,30-something Geeta cycles to work.

Written by Jaskiran Kapoor |
February 20, 2011 10:30:09 pm

Armed with a mobile phone and a cycle,the urban domestic help moves ahead on her own terms and condition

Dressed in a crisp cotton salwar kameez,30-something Geeta cycles to work. Fixing her hair and scrolling down her mobile phone,she is matter of fact when she says,“Dekho madamji,it’s Rs 800 for (cleaning),Rs 500 for dishes and Rs 100 per person for clothes. No one cleans the bathroom anymore,for that you call the sweeper. Besides a month-long break,we take two offs every month.” She is the self-appointed representative of the ‘maid union’ at Sector 7,and puts the rules in place.

Meet the new urban help,often female. Losing one of her ilk is like losing a lifeline. As they switch jobs with ease,searching for a new one is an ordeal for the employers. “They have their terms and conditions. We follow,” says Nimrita Singh,a teacher who resides in Sector 10. Singh’s words hint at a change that is palpable in urban India,especially in Chandigarh,and within it,among the disorganised sector of working women.

Sample this: the new rates for a full time house help start at Rs 4,000 per month. For a babysitter,it’s between Rs 3,500 to Rs 4,000 per month for an eight hour shift. A night shift,will leave you poorer by Rs 5,000 to Rs 7,500. A babysitter to mind your kids while you are partying would mean anywhere between Rs 100 and Rs 500 for that time frame.

The dependence of urban families on domestic helps has opened up work opportunities for them. “The poor are still viewed in a bad light in Punjab. A large percentage of these women are exploited and yet to be paid the minimum wages as fixed by the government is Rs 127 per day,” says Gauri Singh,who runs Aadhan,a Ludhiana-based NGO which has started a domestic help service recently. As she emphasises on the lack of empowerment of these women,no health benefit,no safety of job,and no pension,she adds that the change in her attitude has come “as a defense mechanism. The help has become empowered,but the power balance is still unequal and it’s time we start respecting their work.”

Self respect and protection are certainly helping house helps. “Most of them have violent husbands who take their money away and that’s why a number of a police station is on their speed dial. They are not scared of lodging a complaint,” says Panchkula based Ravi Pandher. Middle-aged Kamlesh who works for Pandher,like others,knows the difference between the size of different houses and charges accordingly. “She will never stay beyond 2 pm,as that’s the time her children come from school,” adds Pandher. Even as Kamlesh takes a bidi break,Pandher talks about how well informed they are about current affairs,own Below Poverty Line cards; shop at Big Bazaar and know about cosmetics and good quality food.

Artist Sonal A Singh also observes how many house helps have given up wearing the sari. “Working in saris is limiting,while a crisp Suvasa or FabIindia hand-me-down salwar suit,is a liberating experience. For them,its like wearing a pair of trousers.” In this process of evolution,writer Neeti Bindra adds how they’ve become conscious of self-grooming. “They visit a parlour,some even attempt to speak in broken English,” she quips. Pandher however feels that the change is deeper. Helps,she says are now keen on planting trees and even have pets at home.

Sonal feels that birth control has gone a long way to effect this change. “They see us with one or two kids and follow suit,” says Sonal,adding how her helps don’t want their daughters to be married in villages and aspire for a better life for them. Interestingly,one of them called Ramrati enrolled for a Art of Living course after being fascinated with spiritual guru Sri Sri Ravi Shankar’s posters. Economic independence has led to a sense of empowerment. Asha lost her husband a year back. He was a wife beater. “I don’t miss him or feel the difference. Life is better after him,” says Asha,who has recently applied for life insurance.

However,not everyone is gung-ho about the mobile and new army of domestic helps. “Their level of dedication has perhaps gone down. They switch jobs for a mere Rs 100,so there is little attachment to one working place,” says Aditi Srivastava,president of International Institute of Fashion Design,Sector 8,Chandigarh. Still,there is a sense of gratitude and it works both ways. Like Srivastava,who pays her ‘amma’ Rs 5,000 a month just to look after the house. “They are an integral part of our household. For me,my housekeeper is my support system.” Yes they are.

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