The liquor outlet in Puthenvelikkara village, 30 km off Kochi, sits on the banks of the Chalakkudy river, with cows milling in a field nearby. It’s 11 am, and a couple of customers are standing already in queues at this government-run BEVCO (Kerala State Beverages Corporation) outlet. Inside sits Shaini Rajeev at a desk, among cardboard cases of ‘British Empire’, ‘Honey Bee’, and ‘McDowell’s’ stacked around her.
The 43-year-old is the only woman employed in a retail outlet of the State-run corporation in Kerala, and she got here after a five-year legal fight. In April, the Kerala High Court ruled in favour of Shaini, ordering BEVCO to grant her the job she wanted. In October, she took charge at the Puthenvelikkara outlet as a lower-division clerk, the senior-most official in a staff of 11, earning a basic salary of Rs 21,000, besides a daily allowance of Rs 300.
A part of the wall where Shaini sits is covered in soot, indicating a recent fire. As the three male staff handle customers at the counter, Shaini updates the registers to make sure the accounts are intact. “After coming here, I understood what a pint, a quarter and a half were,” she laughs. She doesn’t drink, and neither does her husband. “Or I would have known these things.”
In 2010, when the Public Service Commission held a test for the first time to fill vacancies at BEVCO, Shaini was among the thousands who applied. Applications were invited for positions at retail outlets, warehouses and the headquarters. In the main rank list published in 2012, Shaini came 526 among 1,717 who cleared the test, more than half of whom were women.
However, while BEVCO appointed less than a dozen women, ranked between 1 and 100, to the warehouses, men were chosen for the retail outlet jobs, pushing Shaini and hundreds of women out. The Kerala Abkari Shops Disposal Rules and the 2002 Foreign Liquor Rules bar women from serving alcohol at bars, pubs and retail shops. “Appo, nammalu Constitution-il pidichu (Then, we held onto the Constitution),” Shaini says. “There cannot be gender discrimination in employment. We went to court against BEVCO in 2013.”
BEVCO cited concerns of safety and security for women at retail outlets, since the staff are mandated to work from 10 am to 9 pm. They also said the main rank list by then had expired, and offered to give Shaini a job by replacing any of the lower-ranked men. But Shaini says she declined, wishing not to take a job in place of someone else. In April, the High Court said the stipulations in the Foreign Liquor Rules violated Articles 14 and 15 of the Constitution and ordered BEVCO to create a post for Shaini as a lower-division clerk at a retail outlet.
“Initially, I was in two minds. And then I thought, through my posting, many other women may also get jobs. I should at least start the process, right?” says Shaini. Just then, a male staff interrupts, asking for money to buy some powder to sprinkle in a nearby well to purify the water. “Buy it. I will give the money,” replies Shaini.
The 43-year-old laughs about her shock at first arriving at the outlet. “Things were bad, like how it happens where there is no woman at a home. The toilet was dirty. A well nearby was clogged with liquor bottles. You see this soot? I heard that in 2014, thieves came to steal money, but couldn’t open an iron chest. So they set the shop on fire. The damaged bottles were put in the well. The toilet and the well were cleaned after I came,” she says with pride.
Through her contacts with the panchayat, where she worked as a lower grade official before the job at BEVCO, Shaini also managed to get streetlights installed in the area. Since Shaini is the senior-most staff, she is not required to sell liquor to customers. She comes in at 9 am, an hour before the store opens, and checks the stock report prepared the previous night. A lot of time, Shaini explains, goes into calculating taxes and putting the numbers into the registers. Daily reports are made and vouchers prepared for expenses like diesel and newspapers.
Once or twice in a week, a truck-load of liquor comes, and Shaini has to ensure everything is in order. She also visits the Excise Office to complete formalities such as getting permits. Shaini says most days are easy, but there is a rush in the weekends. “The day before a bandh and the hours after the bandh, you can imagine…” Since the store is open all days of the week, she has no offs. It’s closed only on the first of every month and public holidays.
After two months, Shaini feels confident of the trade she was once virtually ignorant about. “Tuborg beer alle? Ariyam enikku (Tuborg is a beer, right? I know),” she beams.
Thilakan, a colleague, insists he has no qualms working with a woman, especially at a liquor outlet. “There are no problems. Anyone who sits at the top should be efficient. That’s all that matters,” he says. Udayan appreciates the changes since Shaini came. “Customers don’t use bad language anymore. We tell them there is a woman staff inside,” he smiles.
At 2 pm, Shaini heads home for lunch. It’s just 4 km away, and she rides her scooter there, past green paddy fields. She shares the single-storey home, with its backyard, chicken coop and cow-shed, with her husband Rajeev, two grown-up children (17 and 20) and mother-in-law. Rajeev does organic farming and rears cows and has a broiler chicken business on the side.
The 43-year-old says that apart from her lawyers, her husband was her strength in the BEVCO fight. “He was more interested than me in winning the case,” she laughs. The couple say they didn’t face any disapproval from their families either. Rather, their children were delighted when their names appeared in the newspapers alongside hers. Shaini’s teachers at her local school called to say they were proud of her.
The family has also adjusted to Shaini’s working hours. While the children are grown up, Rajeev works from home. A CPI member, Rajeev describes himself as a rationalist. Nearly two decades ago, the marriage of Rajeev, a Hindu, and Shaini, a Christian, had faced much opposition from her parents. “They are orthodox Christians and I am a rationalist. You can imagine!” says Rajeev. This was one reason he backed Shaini when she was turned down for the BEVCO job, he says. “The Constitution enshrines gender equality in education, employment and wages,” he says, adding he was always hopeful of a favourable verdict.
“We only live once. It’s a short life. So we should get what we deserve. If they give us what we deserve, it’s good. Otherwise, we will ask for it and make sure we get it,” says Rajeev firmly.