Updated: March 13, 2021 8:37:50 am
The recent announcements by various political parties in Tamil Nadu that they would allot a certain amount of money for the labour by homeworkers are, to say the least, intriguing. On the one hand, you wonder why party after party has named an amount that it is willing to pay to monetise women’s domestic and care labour, when there has been no effective demand from women’s groups, or indeed from any sector. While the matter has been discussed on and off in feminist circles, and came up for public debate during the 1991 census when women’s groups undertook a campaign to ensure that women’s home-based labour was accounted for, it has not really been translated into a consistent demand, at least not in Tamil Nadu.
The current excitement may be traced to the actor Kamal Hassan’s interest in the matter. Some weeks ago, a member of his political party approached economists to ask their opinion and lead articles on the subject featured in various dailies. It is anybody’s guess why he picked on this particular issue. In any case, once the matter acquired sufficient importance, other parties did not want to be left out and so joined the chorus.
In a state where competitive welfarism has been praised by all, and marked as a distinctive mode of politics, this ought not to surprise any of us. In this sense, the proposed amount will probably find its slot, along with other measures, such as widow’s pension. Tamil Nadu’s safety net, such as it is, stands to be slightly enlarged as a result, and this must reassure all those economists in the state who have constantly pointed to the success of such measures in beating back abject poverty and ensuring that no one is really left out of the state’s reckoning. What is not part of this happy welfare story are the stunted and stagnant levels of social existence in the state, as M Rajshekhar’s recent book Despite the State has noted, pointing to unfulfilled promises in the realm of women’s health in this otherwise “progressive” state.
The wages-for-housework promise is thus of a piece with what is politics as usual in Tamil Nadu and which does not offer, and has never quite offered, feminist comfort. For one, it mocks at the utter precarity of domestic workers and housekeeping staff, who are poorly paid, bullied, even as they care for as well as subsidise the everyday existence of the middle and upper classes. As cooks, household labourers, sanitary workers and cleaners in apartments, offices and factories, and as waste workers who help monetise what others throw away, and thus keep the home and environment relatively free of toxicity, they perform diverse functions, yet are often not “visible” as a workforce.
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Secondly, the same homemakers who are to be paid a wage are routinely shortchanged by a government that has allowed and enabled the growth of micro finance in the state which in turn has led to a high level of female indebtedness. Women are indebted often to several companies, and the loans incurred are for a range of social and reproductive purposes: Children’s education, hospital expenses, to pay off earlier loans, social and religious obligations. In a state where private schools and hospitals enjoy much prestige, women’s debt pays for private education and health care. The upward mobility of Tamil Nadu’s undercastes is equally a gendered tale, as it is of caste betterment.
Interestingly, almost none of those who have found welfarism praiseworthy have cared to enquire into the gendered character of the so-called Dravidian model: Whether it is the rice that is made available through the PDS, or the various ameliorative schemes for enhancing household income; or the free provision of household goods, such as mixers and grinders, or goats and cows, the state has brought the household under its provenance. On the other hand, even as women are viewed as recipients of state largesse, they literally “disappear” as workers.
Whether this has to do with conditions of employment in a range of industries from the garment sector to fireworks, sanitary labour to domestic work, women labourers work in precarious conditions, and for wages that mock the hours of work that they put in. Safety at the workplace is not even a considerate thought in the eyes of the state, and sexual harassment is built into the labour process. Also, the state is home to a large migrant labour workforce that is substantially female in select industries, and the pandemic showed up the limits of what the state will, or will not do, by its female workforce. Subsidising the household renders women’s labour even more invisible and marks them as welfare recipients even as their claims to equitable wages are not acknowledged.
Clearly, in Tamil Nadu, women can claim citizenship rights and emoluments only as reproducers and even here there is a certain cynicism that besets the state’s attitude to household-based welfarism: The manner in which it has taken charge of liquor sales in the state, which have earned it the ire of women’s groups in parts of the state, many of whom have wryly noted that it is liquor that takes away what they need for their homes, and this is replaced by barely edible PDS rice and household appliances which are not usable beyond the year.
It is fascinating that the wages-for-housework proposal should have earned the traction it has, in view of these other factors. It is clear that, come elections, performativity is all, and manifestoes can be tweaked and rendered lively and dramatic. Catchy phrases and solemn promises are, in any case, their own truth and in the Tamil context, the drama is not new, and neither is the script, which remains resolutely populist and determined to infantilise its citizens, especially women, by promising them rewards, without taking on the responsibility of heeding their concerns or indeed their demands.
This column first appeared in the print edition on March 13, 2021 under the title ‘Talking down to women’. The writer is a Chennai-based social historian and activist.
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