“I am earning an honest living. At least I am not cleaning other people’s left over!” – said ‘the lady’ we met on platform number four of Guwahati Railway Station. She was earning a living off her daughter performing on the platform in tattered clothes while she played drums. Her anklets, kohl and attire suggested she belonged to a nomadic tribe whose generations might have earned a living performing on streets. Today you find many of them dwelling in slums in cities and people dismissing all that they know as begging.
However, my mentor, a mother of an 8-year-old found it difficult to dismiss it. While I witnessed one mother accusing another of child abuse and the latter defending it as an honest living to feed the same child, my mind played over her statement about ‘cleaning people’s left over’ and her idea of dignity. It also bothered me about the amount of diversity that exists in our country and how development work needs to be contextualized to bring about any real difference in India. That will be another story and one which I look forward to understand in my time here.
Currently, it is the idea of dignity that looms in front of me. I am working with ‘Purbanchal Maitri Development Society’ which runs a program called ‘Sahayika’ (translated as ‘Help’) to provide skills and ensure decent work conditions of domestic help. The doubt that I will be encouraging employing ‘servants’ did linger in my head before I accepted to be part of this program. After brain picking few able people, I concluded that at times it is important to uplift people in the work that they know and can do rather than uprooting them with a promise for an unknown paradise. It is necessary to ‘evolve’ but at one’s own pace. However, my conscience was still nudging me for an answer, like most inflated conscience ‘s’ do – we like to seek some divine reasoning in everything (but let me add – it has mostly turned out to be a good thing for me).
Knowing you are here to revamp ‘Communication Strategy’ of Maitri was not enough to create anything, let alone a project of impact. Development work (in fact all good/ meaningful/ passionate work) is not something you do for the sake of displaying your skills, you certainly don’t do it for the money; you might do it for your five-minutes of fame, but you mostly do it to fulfill a purpose. Hence, amidst reading documents on best practices, international reports on domestic work and how India has the highest demand for domestic workers with no official record on the actual number employed across the country, I set to find my purpose of doing this job before working on a project.
Having grown up in India, where ‘Labour’ is considered less of a support but more of a beneficiary living off on someone’s ability to spare money for his work, I first realised the ridicule of it all while studying abroad. Ofcourse one can quote examples where a domestic help is like a family member in India and several examples where labour is exploited in the West, but a macroscopic view of the then 22-year-old me was convinced of the roadblock to development for my country and my little encounter at the railway station reminded me of the problem continuing to loom over us.
Maybe contributing my bit towards restoring that magical thing called ‘Dignity of Labour’ for an unorganised community is my purpose here? Too early to say but it is a start.
Maitri works towards upholding the need to recognise the contribution of a domestic help in an average Indian urban family. Ensuring decent wages, liberty to take a week off, sick-leave and paid-leave by domestic helpers are few of its many initiatives. I hope to communicate the importance of their work not only to people who can hire them, but to the domestic-helpers as well to honour their honest living and not to settle for exploitation. I hope to find the lady on platform number four someday and explain to her that as much dignity lies in someone cleaning leftovers as she thinks lies in her performing on the street.
The journey has just begun and due to witty play of time, what looked like ‘almost’ a year during the orientation week has begun to look ‘a little-more-than’ half a year to me. It is good to know my purpose before my project and discover a new way to keep myself motivated every day. I have realised that ‘settling’ down is elusive to this program and hence I have taken to use the phrase ‘evolving’ to describe my current state. In any case, I doubt we ever really ‘settle’ and I feel it might be dreary if we did. However, between all ifs and buts, I think I know my purpose towards this fellowship and can safely say I am in a happy, if not necessarily a content place. Peace.