Poornima Joshi


Poornima Joshi | Updated on April 11, 2020

Surviving Self-Distancing – Day 14

Talking to a childhood friend this afternoon, I once again realised just how skewed and iniquitous our national priorities are and the insidious way in which our social order validates these priorities. I was ashamed to learn of the kind of remuneration that is paid to an anganwadi worker who is at forefront of enumerating and documenting the Covid-19 spread along with health workers and Accredited Social Health Activist (ASHA) workers. In Himachal Pradesh, it does not even amount to the minimum wage let alone wage befitting a professional who is the interface of the State with the people. Our society guard similarly gets paid just about Rs 7000 per month and bus drivers roughly get less than Rs 30,000 a month. The safai karamcharis in municipalise get around Rs 12,000 a month. These are, of course, not absolute but rough estimates which vary depending on which state you live in.

Now, imagine a life without bus drivers or safai karamcharis. How is the societal contribution of a person who drives a Himachal Road Transport Corporation bus for ten hours between Shimla and Delhi any less than a journalist such as myself who would routinely be paid at least four times the amount? Can anyone deny the criticality of a safai karamchari and then not question the abysmal returns he gets by way of remuneration? At what point does it become all right for even a middle-of-the-road lawyer to earn a hundred times more than a safai karamchari given the comparative societal value of the work that each of these individuals perform? I’ll tell you why, because our social order, or more specifically the caste system permits and legitimises this unfair and unjust stratification.

We are conditioned to believe that only the so-called intellectual work is worthy of being appropriately monetised and rewarded. Manual work, labour is simultaneously degraded and thus less rewarding. In the community that I belong to, there are the Badi Dhoti Brahmins, who don’t till the land they own and the Chhoti Dhoti ones who plough the earth. You don’t have to hitch your dhoti up to till the land and therefore, you are apparently the more superior Badi Dhoti who will not marry into those who have had to hitch up their dhoti to hold the plough and till the land. The inference I draw is, if you’re doing manual work as opposed to intellectual work that is your calling by birth as befitting a Brahmin, you are inferior. The custom of endogamy that this very small community of Kumaoni Brahmins still religiously practice (and thank god for my brothers who have married for love) does not extend to the ones who end up doing manual work. Labour is thus stigmatised at the very top of the social order. It is a culturally and religiously ingrained belief. In the Vishnusahastranam that I recite along with the sublime rendition of M. S. Subbulakshami every morning, the verse goes Vedantago brahmansyat, kshatriyo vijayi bhavet, vaishyo dhanasamridhsyat, shudra sukhmavapnuyat (The Brahmin will get knowledge, the Kshtriya will get victory, the Vaishya will get wealth and the Shudras will get pleasures by reading these). In the Varna Vyavastha or the caste order, each of us have our roles cut out and please notice that for the Shudras, the prescription is the enjoyment of sensory pleasures because their lot obviously does not qualify for the intellectual and spiritual pursuit which is the preserve of the Brahmin. The work accordingly assigned to the Shudras is manual and literally defines their creed – the mali, dhobi, lohar et al. Then, of course, there are the outcastes, the Dalits to whose lot will fall the job of cleaning manholes, sweeping the streets and disposing of our solid and liquid waste. Have you ever seen a Brahmin safai karamchari in a municipality? You wouldn’t because that is not the job we are born to do.

Is it any wonder then that India has not and will not ever become a truly modern nation and by modernity, what I mean is equality in social relations. Look at the way we refer to people who facilitate our modern lives by doing our domestic chores for a living; our offensive vocabulary – malik/naukar. We are their “owners” and they are our “servants”, they “serve” us. And we none of us pause to think just how feudal and backward this notion is. So all of you sisters (brothers don’t do much of the domestic chores still, do you?) out there, have you at least now truly understood and felt the criticality in our lives of these women who come and clean our houses and wash our dishes and clothes, cook for us, look after our children? Is it not their support that has enabled us to get out and do our work in the offices, rear our children, carry on with our lives rather effortlessly? Do they not deserve more dignity, respect and certainly more money than they get? Can we ever become a society where labour is respected and valued? Can we really think of ourselves as citizens in a modern nation-state and not as the ones who are entitled by birth and ones who have been disempowered by birth?

Our lives have been turned upside down and we are all insecure, fearful. But this is also a time to re-imagine our world. At least make a start from our own homes.

Published on April 11, 2020

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