Fix this lopsided relationship

The arrest of a Gurgaon businessman for abusing his servant, an eight-year-old boy, should have brought with it some debate on the status and treatment of domestic workers in urban India, writes Namita Bhandare.

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The arrest of a Gurgaon businessman for abusing his servant, an eight-year-old boy, should have brought with it some debate on the status and treatment of domestic workers in urban India. It did not.

Predictably, the issue was ignored by most mainstream media as a page three snippet. Equally predictably, the businessman was out on bail in a matter of hours, despite the twin allegations of physical abuse and the hiring of a minor child.

Perhaps hiring little children, beating them up, denying them food, making them live in the most appalling conditions is more widespread than we would like to believe. But we don’t know. We don’t know because we don’t talk about it. We acknowledge that our lives will be impossibly hard, if not impossible, without servants. But for most middle class Indians, domestic workers are the silent majority who sweep, clean, dust, cook and drive. They live in our homes, but within tightly drawn boundaries, observing social lines that must never be crossed. The cook in the kitchen will at short notice whip up a meal for unexpected guests, but will only eat leftovers. The maid will make the beds, never lie on them.

There are an estimated 60,000 domestic workers employed in Delhi. Many come from impoverished states. Most have left their families behind. If they’re lucky they will meet them once a year on their annual vacation. Almost none receive minimum wages as stipulated by law though many employers will argue that the shortfall is made up in kind — meals and cast-off clothes, for instance. The best employers will allow a weekly off, a generous Diwali bonus or an interest-free loan for a daughter’s marriage. The worst? As the arrest of the Gurgaon businessman shows, there is no worst. If you missed the sordid details: someone saw the businessman’s wife kicking her child employee and took a surreptitious film. The visuals were then sent to television networks where they were aired. The child was rescued a few hours later and told the police that the businessman had also let his dog loose on him. He had scars as evidence.

Despite the obvious intimacy of the relationship, the relationship between employer and employee remains fraught with suspicion. Police constantly remind you to verify staff. In most households, cupboards are locked. This is not to imply that opportunistic crimes by domestic workers don’t happen. Rifling through loose change, siphoning off petrol, eating a piece of forbidden fruit are some of the smaller misdemeanours that most employers turn a blind eye to. But sometimes disparities are so obvious and inequities so wide that they will lead to real tragedy — the murder of an elderly employer or large-scale theft.

These are rare but because these are played out so prominently in the press, it seems like all domestic workers are potential murderers. Worse, the more prevalent abuse of domestics goes ignored. It’s only when a Shiney Ahuja is accused of raping his maid (a charge that was later withdrawn), that the issue gets full play, and even then the larger issue — the sexual exploitation of women domestic workers — passes us by.

Yet, when a crime occurs, it’s almost invariably the servant who is the prime suspect. The first suspect in the murder of Aarushi Talwar was the family servant, Hemraj Banjade. When his body turned up, rather inconveniently for the police, on the terrace of the same building where the Talwars lived, the story had to be quickly changed. The father did it, said the police. The motive? An inappropriate relationship between Hemraj and Aarushi. The CBI closure report once again points suspicion on the father, a suggestion that is angrily denied by him.

In a country where rural poverty is endemic and middle class aspiration rising, domestic help will never be difficult to get. Yet, as India’s social landscape undergoes a transformation, we need to acknowledge the complexities of our relationship with those who help us around the house. Starting by seeing them as human beings, worthy of respect and attention wouldn’t be a bad place to begin.

Namita Bhandare is a Delhi-based writer n The views expressed by the author are personal