Saturday, July 22, 2017

Amrit Dhillon - Routine abuse of Delhi's maids laid bare as class divide spills into violence

The standoff between cooks, cleaners, drivers and childminders of the rich, who last week stormed across the well-manicured lawns at Mahaguna Moderne in Noida, a Delhi suburb, has turned from violent to political. Dozens of people whom residents believe took part in the angry uprising have been sacked, and in response trade unions are calling for a boycott of all domestic help. There is fury at what has been seen as the high-handed approach of a government minister who arrived to talk to 
residents before making racial slurs against the rioters and refusing to meet slum dwellers.

The 100-strong group of protesters consisted of workers who enter the high-rise complex daily yet are forced to take different lifts and corridors to their employers, and even have to use different glasses and taps to drink water. When Zohra Bibi, a part-time maid, went missing, her husband went to the complex to demonstrate together with his relatives and friends. It is claimed that Mithul and Harshu Sethi and their children, for whom Bibi worked, were forced to lock themselves inside their bathroom for safety as the mob stormed into their huge condominium flat, damaging the marble walls and vandalising furniture.

The complex of plush apartments has manicured lawns, a clubhouse, a gym and tennis courts. But just 300 metres away lies a filthy, muddy lane with greenish-black monsoon puddles where the workers live in low, windowless tin sheds. Bricks and stones are used to hold down roofs, and water has to be carried in plastic cans from a nearby municipal tap. There are no toilets. The proximity of the luxury towers, which loom over the slum, is like a taunt. When night falls, the taunt becomes sharper as the lights come on in the flats while the hovels remain dark. 

These two extremes generally co-exist peacefully. But on the morning of 13 July, the workers’ simmering resentment against the contempt of their employers erupted. When Bibi, 30, failed to return home, her husband, Abdul Sattar, panicked. He gathered his neighbours and marched to the gates of Mahaguna Moderne, overpowering the security guards and heading inside. The violence was only quelled when the police arrived.

In the hours that followed, Bibi turned up safe and well. She claimed she had been hiding after being attacked in the Sethi’s home, while the family claim they chased her out of their house for stealing.
By what right did they demolish our livelihoods? Just because they are rich? Because I’m poor, do I have no rights? Bibi and her husband were not at home when the Guardian visited; their shack was padlocked. Talking to maids and drivers revealed the daily humiliations they face: not being allowed to use the toilets that they are responsible for cleaning; being frisked when they leave each day, to check for theft; one day’s leave a month; homes where the fridge is locked to prevent the maid from eating any food; being prevented by security guards from sitting on benches in the open areas.

“Work or leave. You’re not here to rest. That’s what they said,” explains Asha Devi, a part-time maid at the complex. She says her employer is a “good madam” but is always trying to exploit her. “When I’m finished with the cleaning, she says: ‘Can you massage my feet?’ Or she asks me to clean the fridge. And she won’t pay me extra.” Asked if she feels humiliated by the apartheid-style separate lifts for residents and workers, she shrugs. “What can I do? I am poor. I need the job to feed my children.” In the days after the violence, workers were dubbed “illegal immigrants”; most are from West Bengal, the majority Muslims. Workers were locked out of the complex until “security concerns” had been addressed. Other condominiums followed suit.

Then electricity and water supplies to the slums were cut off. The next morning, about 50 policemen arrived with a bulldozer and demolished the 50 or so makeshift tea stalls and shops selling fruit and vegetables that lined the main road from Mahaguna Moderne... read more: