Shaloo is the hired help in my house.
Background: Originally from Bihar¹, she came to Delhi as a little girl after both her parents died within a span of two months. She doesn’t know her age at the time, and uses her hand, palm parallel to the ground at around 4-feet to indicate relative age. How did they [the parents] both die, I asked, envisioning a flood or epidemic. They were both sick from black magic was the serious answer. Of the now orphan children, only two were married: elder brother and sister. The parents left behind extremely meager resources, and the eldest son kicked out the younger ones. Shaloo was then brought by her brother in law to Delhi, and put to work in a “kothi” (rich person’s home, large and usually stand-alone) as household help. This was some 20 years back. In some years, she got married, had three kids: Vikas (13 years); Kavita (11 years) and Suraj (9 years).
Now: Shaloo makes Rs. 4000/month. Her husband is a rickshaw puller², and makes a daily wage between Rs. 70-150, depending on the number of customers. His monthly rent for the hired rickshaw is Rs. 900. The family of five live in a jhuggi³ (small soul-sucking tenements, usually illegal). While Shaloo’s story is typical, she is exceptionally disciplined and saves roughly 30% of the monthly income. She also sends her children to school.
Monthly household income: Rs. 7000 (~$150). Budget highlights:
- Jhuggi rent: 600 (she has a great deal: rent can be as high as Rs. 2000/month depending on quality/availability)
- Ration: 3000
- School fees: free state education
- Tuition: 200 (she used to pay an additional 300/month for the other two kids, but after seeing no improvement in their performance, she removed the tuition, and has the eldest kid tutor the younger two. Eldest stood first in his class with 75% scores)
- Cable: 100
- Food money to eldest kid: 300 (10/day)
- Rickshaw rent: 900
Two years ago, she paid for her sister-in-law’s wedding, and spent Rs. 1,00,000 on the wedding. She now has Rs. 2,50,000 saved.
A few years back, part of the illegal tenements were demolished to make way for the new Delhi metro (subway). It’s been a few years, but she is convinced that the rest will also soon be demolished. If that does happen, what’s the backup plan for this family?
She will return to her village in Bihar, and build a house. However, she doesn’t have any farmland, and thus no way to support herself in the village. Her husband will stay since he’s a man and can stay anywhere (on the street) and send money home. He will visit once/twice a year. She will try and put her eldest son to work in some kothi. She’d like to put the other two too, but no one will take the runts. They will go back with her.
As a society, what are we offering our poorest?
- Family as a social institution is much vaunted in India, yet the poorest often survive by splitting and parceling each member into (financially) productive units, e.g., men work in factories, women/children come as household help etc
- Despite their best efforts, their lives are not stable. Urban houses, factories can’t survive without migrant labor however cities don’t develop any legal areas for them to live in. They live in illegal shantytowns, which can be demolished any time. Compare this with the overheated development of malls in urban India – of course, we need three McDonalds, and Reebok, and Levis stores in a two km radius (no we don’t, and those who commission land/resources for malls know this; 70% of the present and planned malls are expected to fail)
- Each family is in so precarious a situation themselves, they can’t help the other. Competition for scarce resources ensures that the poor rarely unite to fight for their rights; instead often get manipulated by the powerful (e.g., money for votes, Mayawati etc)
- Despite our rising GDP, there is no upgrade in the standard of living – subsequent generations will not see much improvements over their parents.
The obvious question to the above is: why don’t I pay all the Shaloos in my purview a living wage. We try, however there are some constraints, which I will address in the next post.
¹: A large percentage of drivers, and unskilled labor hail from Bihar and Orissa (based on an informal survey in Delhi)