Case studies from Aajeevika’s field sites

Print edition : August 13, 2021

Case Study 1: Women breadwinners

Before COVID-19, Sudevi used to supplement her husband’s income with home-based jobs in Ahmedabad. Now, as with many female migrants, the roles have reversed in her family. Since the second wave, Sudevi’s husband has not been able to return to Ahmedabad from their village, forcing her to become the primary breadwinner.

Sudevi struggles to provide for her two young daughters solely on the income from her needlework jobs. Unlike their husbands, female migrants like Sudevi have less access to more lucrative labour markets, which are physically demanding. Sudevi’s ability to make a livelihood is further limited by the need to care for her young children all day as public schools remain closed.

The combined responsibility of managing the household, raising children and earning a living has exacerbated the “triple shift” phenomenon for female migrants during COVID-19.

Case Study 2: Widowed workers

Amongst the female migrant demographic, widows are the most alienated subgroup. Marginalised both in their villages and in the city, widows are treated as social outcasts and relegated to the fringes of society. During the COVID-19 crisis, the number of migrant women with this status has increased and its impact has been even more deeply felt.

Pannalal Meghwal, a grass-roots labour advocate, cites the case of Leelaben, a daily wage migrant worker in Ahmedabad who lost her husband, Kalpeshbhai, in the first wave of COVID-19. Before his death, both husband and wife used to work together on daily wage jobs on construction sites to support their large family. With Kalpeshbhai around, it was easy for Leelaben to enter and earn in male-dominated workspaces.

After Kalpeshbhai’s death, everything changed, and Leelaben was left with the responsibility of raising five stepchildren. For several months after Kalpeshbhai’s death, she also had to pay off his debts.

While Leelaben qualifies for the Vidhva Sahay Yojana, the widows’ pension scheme in Gujarat which allocates approximately Rs.1,200 every month, receiving this sum is conditional on the approval of extensive paperwork and presenting Kalpeshbhai’s Aadhaar card, which Leelaben does not have.

Case Study 3: Indebtedness

Shantaben is a 42-year-old tribal woman from Mahudi village in the Sajjangarh block of Banswara district in Rajasthan. Her husband, a migrant labourer, died 15 years ago. She has two sons and a daughter. Shantaben paid for her daughter’s marriage ceremonies by taking a loan at an exorbitant interest from a private moneylender. With meagre landholdings that yield crops only in the monsoon, Shantaben has been forced to work in Gujarat as a migrant labourer to help pay off this debt. From the next year onwards, her older son will accompany her to work to help ease this burden.

Shantaben is among the many victims of this gruelling reality in a region plagued by rural distress, poverty and a coercive and unregulated practice of moneylending to the tribal community. Banswara, Rajasthan’s southernmost district, is arguably the least developed and most impoverished in the State. It has the highest concentration of tribal communities (76 per cent) in Rajasthan. The average literacy for women in rural areas is only 24 per cent. Meanwhile, 50 per cent of the district’s rural population lives below the poverty line. Banswara is also the only district in the region from where entire families migrate in search of work.

Owing to the pandemic, women like Shantaben are in a tough predicament. With work and wages scarce in cities, and rural employment either non-existent or abysmally paid, they bear almost exclusively the burden of paying off debts over loans for poverty-stricken families in Banswara.

Case Study 4: Reduced wages, rising costs

Before the pandemic, Rakesh used to buy lunch (three rotis, sabji, rice and dal) for Rs.30 in Mumbai’s Saki Naka neighbourhood. In 2021, he has to spend Rs.50 for the same meal. It is just as difficult for workers trying to cook their own meal, given the increasing costs of groceries. Rakesh says that mustard oil, which earlier cost Rs.80, now costs Rs.150.

Rakesh works at a small manufacturing unit in Mumbai where a portion of the wages was normally paid out every week in the form of an advance (kharchi). However, supply chains have been disrupted owing to lockdown rules. Employers are not able to get new work orders or pay their workers on time. As a result, workers have to bear the burden of both reduced earnings and increased food costs in Mumbai. There is also the constant struggle to pay the monthly rent and electricity bill, while some are still paying arrears from past months.

Rakesh said: “If I only had to feed myself, I would have managed somehow but I also need to provide for my family. Today, the situation is such that I am spending all the money on buying food and surviving in Mumbai.”

Case Study 5: Maternal health

When the migrant worker Pratibha, pregnant and aged 22, suffered excruciating pain in her abdomen after a hard day’s labour at the Hathimandir construction site in Surat, she called an Aajeevika Bureau executive, who took her to the local urban health centre (UHC). Her husband was not with her as he had left to work in Ahmedabad. Most of the women construction workers in Surat are neither aware of the schemes for women’s health nor know the location of such centres. The UHC operates between 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., which coincides with the working time of the construction workers, adding to the challenge of accessibility.

When Pratibha was examined at the UHC, she was told that her umbilical cord was wrapped around the baby’s neck. Her haemoglobin level was low and she was severely deficient in iron. She was advised that if the baby did not turn back into the right position naturally in the next few weeks, then a caesarean delivery would be only option to save the baby. This was a matter of concern for Pratibha as it would not only increase the cost of childbirth but also the time required for rest after birth. When asked to take leave from work in the last few months before delivery, she said: “We have taken a debt back in village which needs to be repaid. Working is necessary; we have no other choice.” Given the lack of any enforced maternity leave at the construction site, Pratibha and many others like her are compelled to work through complicated pregnancies, putting their lives at risk every day.

Case Study 6: Disrupted education

To our surprise, Parvati took the survey sheet from us and started filling it once we approached her at her roadside shanty. She is from Makampura village of Kushalgadh district, Rajasthan, and had enrolled in college last year for a B.A. degree. Now she works from dawn to dusk at the construction site as a helper and earns Rs.400 a day.

Parvati said: “Due to the outbreak of COVID-19, a lockdown was imposed and our colleges were shut until further notice. Often classes are held online, but we do not have a smartphone to attend. As my entire family migrated to Surat, there was nothing to do in the village. So, I joined my parents in work.” She hopes to return to study but is not sure when the college will reopen.

Like her, hundreds of young women have left villages and migrated to the city in search of jobs as educational institutions are shut for an indefinite period. Our rapid survey of 100 young women workers in Surat shows that 68 per cent of them have dropped out of formal education, though 51 per cent are willing to join back when colleges resume physical classes. Online classes are inaccessible to them as 95 per cent do not possess a smartphone.

(All names have been changed to protect workers’ identities)

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