This article has been compiled by Sarita Devi, a domestic worker champion from Harijan Basti and Nitya Sriram, Senior Program Officer at MFF.
In the heart of Gurugram’s posh DLF Phase 5 area, nestled amidst the multi-storey deluxe complexes, is a small urban village, set quite a way off the main road so as to be well shielded from the public eye. This is Harijan Basti, small in area, especially when reckoned against its estimated population of 10-15,000 families.
The colony is everything that the surrounding complexes aren’t, with its narrow lanes, rickety buildings and communal toilets. It’s home to all the domestic workers who work in the nearby apartments. In the second wave of COVID-19, the Basti is also a hotspot for infection, as a rising number of residents – including women informal workers – contract the deadly virus every day.
Bindya (name changed) is a resident of this colony, who fell ill last week. The only place she’s been stepping out of her home to go to is her workplace – two houses in the nearby Carlton-IV, which has been declared a Large Outbreak Area by local authorities. Bindya has three children in the house. They’ve all presented with fever and cough.
Bindya knows this is not the regular flu. She also knows that to confirm her suspicions, she needs to get herself and all her children tested. That’s Rs. 500 per test for five people, including her husband. Or going up to the local government hospital, at least 4 kms away.
After a fight with her increasingly volatile and agitated husband, Bindya decides on the latter. She takes her children one by one, on the backseat of her cycle, painstakingly, battling fever and illness herself, in the scorching summer heat to get tested. They test positive. And a new battle begins. For medicines, verified information, doctors’ appointments, countering misinformation.
Bindya’s story is not unique. Over the last one week, the Martha Farrell Foundation, which has been engaged with women domestic workers in the basti for over half a decade, has begun a rapid assessment of the colony to understand the extent to which the community has been affected by the second wave.
Domestic worker champions (women leaders from within the community), along with our programs team have been holding conversations with 120+ women domestic workers from the basti, helping raise the iron curtain around the settlement as the city plunged into another lockdown to curb rising cases.
Initial conversations have revealed that families across the board are facing challenges, which need immediate attention and concrete action.
Around mid-April, the stress began to mount, as employers stopped part-timers from coming in to work. In the beginning, the women were told it would be for a short period of time.
“Tu thoda halaat sambhalne de” (let things get a little better) is what they’re told. However, about 24 of the women we spoke to have lost their jobs permanently. Another 40 have been temporarily asked to leave – those who left mid-month are uncertain if they would get paid for the days they went to work.
Most have little hope of being paid during the lockdown imposed in Haryana currently. Unsurprisingly, many of the domestic workers we spoke to, were asked to come and work in the homes of their employers right up until the lockdown was imposed. Some were called to homes where residents were presenting with COVID-19 symptoms.
Consequently, they picked up the infection, which spread quickly in the basti owing to cramped conditions of living and little physical distancing. There’s no data to prove this, though, as there’s been no community testing in the basti. The families are unable to afford to get tested. “Woh 500 rupay ka khaana khaalenge hum, didi,” (We’ll use those 500Rs for food instead, sister) they say.
In the meanwhile, the plush condominium owners have begun terming women domestic workers as ‘COVID Super Spreaders’. Working in multiple households, where residents are contracting the virus is perceived to be the reason behind the outbreak of infection in the condominiums.
The discrimination at the hands of the employers is echoed in the attitudes of the security guards of the condominiums, who harass the women and refuse to let them go up to their employers’ houses to collect their salaries or continue working.
It hasn’t stopped employers from attempting to coerce the domestic workers into working full time in their houses, instead of going back to their homes and families though.
Stranded without pay, and discriminated against, many of the women we spoke to have already, or plan to return to their hometowns, likely taking the undetected infection with them to areas that have no health infrastructure or capacity to handle more positive cases.
Those who are stranded here, are left to deal with a similar, pitiful situation – a dearth of verified information, no leads for medicines, hospitals, and no access to affordable doctors or healthcare.
The women, whose faith in the system was already fragile after the last lockdown, are left completely shook. “Khaane peene ka dikkat aajayega, agar lockdown lamba chala toh bahot mushkil hojaayega,” (It’ll get difficult to arrange for food and survive if lockdown continues) one woman said.
Every single conversation revealed to us just how wretchedly we’ve let these fierce women down. Once proud earners who ran their homes, they’ve been reduced to the brink of poverty and begging.
These are just experiences from one basti of an estimated 15000 families of domestic workers. India has an estimated 4 million people who work as domestic workers, as per official records. Similar stories and experiences are emerging from other settlements in Delhi-NCR, as well, according to the Network for the Rights and Voices of Domestic Workers, a coalition of seventeen organisations working with domestic workers in the NCR.
The ongoing assessment has revealed an immediate need for information, medicines, dry ration and access to healthcare as urgent requirements for the domestic worker community.
The Martha Farrell Foundation and PRIA are reaching out to 300+ families with COVID-19 Relief Kits to address the gaps. Each kit costing ₹1500 contains dry rations for a month for a family of four, masks, sanitary napkins, ORS and soap.
And with your help, we’re hoping to expand the outreach to another 3500+ families across Delhi, Faridabad, Sonepat, Panipat and other bastis in Gurgaon. Here’s what you can do to get involved:
Most importantly, keep your eyes peeled – if you notice people abusing their power and/or harassing, discriminating against, or forcing domestic workers to come to work, take action to put an end to it. You can reach out to us for help and guidance on how.