Thursday, December 8, 2022

Slaving it out in Delhi

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Exploitation of the poor is best exemplified in houses alloted to
bureaucrats. They sub-let the servants’ quarter to a family on the condition that its members do household work for free. Slave labor is alive and well

By Bikram Vohra

THIS is a crazy, out of synch article and unless you are prepared to humor me until I can convert you to a state of mild suspicion that there is a socio-economic point (see I used a buzz phrase), don’t go further.

There is slavery in New Delhi. I chanced upon a 35-year-old man who works as a cleaner and lives in New Moti Bagh in our capital, his residence being the servant quarters of a bureaucrat living in a government house. As a quid pro quo, his wife works ten hours a day as a cook in the master’s house without getting a salary.
Hold this thought.

I did. I grasped in and while I am not naive enough to pretend that exploitation of the poor is exaggerated, I do believe fervently that those in power, bestowed upon them by the government, have no right to misuse their privileges and perks.

That space is not yours to give. You do not own it. It is loaned to you and you have no business to sub-let it. What qualitative difference is there between that woman and the slaves being forced into labor in Charleston? If there is no salary, it is slavery.

Two coincidences occurred in the same week recently. The first was an expose in the UK indicting Britain’s shameful past of owning slaves, a fact that it has managed to keep under the covers as the world indicts the confederate states across the pond. Even Prime Minister David Cameron’s distant relative owned human beings. As did a sizeable number of lords, viscounts and titled peers. It is a testament to the English ability to rewrite history to their advantage that for nearly 150 years, their nation has never been associated in the global mind with organized slavery. Yet, these disclosures come as a discomfiting recognition of this trafficking.

The second epiphany came in the form of a film called I am Slave, based on a true story. At the end of this heartrending story of a woman made to work for free in London, co-mes the disclosure that an estimated 50,000 slaves were alive, not well and surviving in the City of London. Behind the trellis fences, the walls and hedgerows of the rich and powerful, enslaved labor was a given.

Take our own capital. Even in some 4,800 houses in bureaucratic Delhi, there are quarters (imagine their state) and a survey done honestly would show at least a 50 percent abuse factor. Add up government housing in toto and you are looking at more than 65,000 units. At least 40,000 units are in Category I, II and III. A batch of 4,500 units was sanctioned five years ago, but is still to be completed. The total number of Delhi government employees is conservatively estimated at two lakh.

boy work....................................

There are three elements that go into making the assumption that government servants exploit the poor shamelessly. One, there is no respect for domestic help in India’s social hierarchy. Two, the mindset is such that there is not a scintilla of guilt over the exploitation. Three, there is comfort in numbers and since everyone is doing it, the quid pro quo is comfortable to live with. After all, the ungrateful, unwashed minions are getting a place to stay, aren’t they?
On the downside, doing a little bit of legwork is not only fraught with danger but you are stymied in your research by a quivering fear in those you approach for quotes. They will lose the roof over their heads and fighting the powerful is a non-starter. They shy away from me with alacrity. And I don’t blame them.

The rules in allotment of government accommodation are clear, so clear they can be flouted with impunity. In Supplementary Rule 317-B-6 of Allotment of Government Residences (General Pool in Delhi) Amendment Rules, after sub-rule (4), the following sub-rule shall be inserted, namely:-
“(5)Every officer shall along with an application under sub-rule (1), submit an undertaking with a declaration that he shall not sublet a residence allotted to him or any portion thereof or any of the out-houses, garages or stable appurtenant thereto, after acceptance of the same.”
(iii) In Supplementary Rule 317-B-20, –
(a) for sub-rule (1), the following sub-rules shall be substituted, namely:-
“(1) No other shall share the residence allotted to him or any of the out-houses, garages and stables appurtenant thereto except with his family and immediate relations.”
Clause 1A makes for a good defense.
“(1A) The servant quarters, out-houses, garages and stables may be used only for the bonafide purposes including residence of the servants of the allottee or for such other purposes as may be permitted by the Director of Estates.”

Hello, Mr Director of Estates, do you have any clue what’s going on? The operative word is bona fide and slave quarters are not bona fide. On this canvas, let us talk to a 54-year-old dhobi who lives in the quarters at the back of a very senior luminary’s government bungalow. He has been there for well over 20 years through a line of predecessors. His current “master” and his extended family imperiously give him an average of 100 items a day to wash and starch. If they are not spotless, he gets reamed for incompetence.
With a sigh of resignation he adds: “They don’t even pay for the soap.”

It is such a heartbreaking sentence that seething helplessly on hearing it seems a self-indulgence. The gardener is free and so is the sweeper. One big, happy family.

I am made to swear I will not ever mention who is his “sahib” is or else his whole family will be destroyed and the rancid carrot of a job for his son out there in the distant future will be pulled back. He immediately regrets having shared the confidence with me and calls several times in the week I am in Delhi to seek reassurance.

That is the problem with such a story. You will destroy the weak ones to set up the big fish and it’s not worth the sacrifice because the big fish are sharks and they will get away because they are all in this gigantic conspiracy together.

I speak to several others by putting on a dismal charade that since they are getting free space, it is understandable. The fact that the wife who cooks and all her tribe can slave (I will repeat that word every opportunity I get) 15 hours and face scoldings at random is par for the course. The husband, who works elsewhere, can come home and be arbitrarily co-opted to run errands, do the shopping, come to help in case there are guests for dinner.

After the London scandal broke, Special Services upped their checks. In Delhi, there is no such movement. Who will walk into the house of an MP or a minister, a judicial majesty or a bureaucrat and take the side of the slave?

As the coincidences mounted, I happened to switch on the white noise that serves as news on TV. And there was the Prime Minister Narendra Modi, as eloquent as Marcus Antonius, his oratory sweeping over the crowds like an intellectual khamsin.
He spoke of his adivasi brothers and his dalit brothers and other sundry brothers and how dear they were to his heart and I thought, okay, you’ve got it, Prime Minister, most of these slaves are from the so-called lower castes or whatever label they go by these days. Go get them.

Consequently, let’s start at home. In the capital. Do a spot check of 50 VIP homes and see if they keep slaves. The home ministry should order it, a sting operation.
Slaves are people who work for free. Who are in no position to fight back because they are bought but not paid for. By law, these men and women and their children who toil for gratis are victims of trafficking.

In one house, the son returns from school and washes the cars. In another, the daughter sweeps the garden. In the third, the office peon does the memsahib’s shopping and comes home after office to serve as a domestic. What price the big talk if those who make the laws break the laws.

PS: The author is arrogantly certain that this report will be laughed off and ignored because it cuts too close to the bone and no one really cares enough.


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