What is common between Vasant Vihar and Kusumpuri Pahari? Vasant Vihar is among Delhi's classiest colonies and Kusumpuri Pahari is a chaotic slum which sticks out on a road nearby. Every morning swarms of men and women walk or cycle from Kusumpuri Pahari and other slums to upscale Vasant Vihar, Westend, Shanti Niketan and several middle class localities in between.

These are maids, drivers, guards, gardeners, cleaners, babysitters and an assortment of care givers. From masseurs to enema attendants and from cooks to physiotherapists, there are handymen, or women, for every conceivable service. Many services demand a close proximity, a daily connection, a relationship of sorts, between clients and service providers. Can life in Vasant Vihar ever be safe if the maids and care givers suffer from deadly diseases or if there is dengue and meningitis in their tenements? It matters for us and our children if our service providers are clean, healthy and in good frame of mind. So the smartest investment the residents of Vasant Vihar can make in their own well-being is to ensure that the slum in the backyard is free from filth and squalor and the inhabitants get clean drinking water.

However, the reality is different because the educated, upper class Indians -- whose voices tend to get heard -- fail to connect the dots between us and them, our children and their children. It is not just the government or the municipalities but also the better-off PLUs (people like us) who are instrumental in denying dignity to a vast underclass, as if by default. Nothing typifies this us-and-them-paradigm better than our relationships with our domestic workers. While we want the best safety, security and services for our children, we are at best indifferent to those of our domestic workers. We at Common Cause believe that improving the working conditions of domestic workers is a policy imperative whose time has come. A resurgent and democratic India cannot afford to deny citizenship to a vast majority of its people.

Is It Work Like Any Other?

What is missing in domestic work sector, first and foremost, is a recognition that it is work. Once we recognise it as a valid economic activityat the bottom of the pyramid, we begin to see its contribution in the nation's growth. It helps the economy because every extra buck earned - and spent - creates further demand for goods and services leading to more employment generation.Domestic work is both an enabling reason for, and a consequence of, rising middle class incomes. The double-income families would not be so without someone doing the chores or caring for the kids and the elderly. It empowers both sides and boosts Gross National Happiness by easing work-family-life tensions!

We know that many maids and drivers earn admiration and are treated with respect. However, the limits to this 'relationship' are fairly clear: It's never an employee-employer relationship with rights, benefits or entitlements. It is true that a large number of employers are kind to their workers but this issue is not about charity or kindness. It is about self-respect, equality of opportunities, human dignity and citizenship.

In India, domestic workers are never recognised as workers, professionals or service providers. They mostly go by the label of 'servant' which suggests that their duty is to serve (the master). They lack physical or legal protection because they work in others' houses without written contracts. Their dismal, and often dangerous, working conditions, long hours and low wages make them modern-day slaves. The UN protocol on slavery includes factors like coercion, deception, trafficking and control over another person's life for exploitation. This issue of Common Cause explores if together we can make a difference and provide safety, security, dignity and justice to fellow citizens who work for us.

Vipul Mudgal

Volume: Vol. XXXV No. 2