It always strikes me when I go out and interact with the poor; how much of our understanding of the world around us comes from deeply ingrained biases about social class.
In our survey work in Nathupur Village, Gurgaon (which I am doing as part of my research on shelter conditions for migrant workers), we clearly do not have a lot to offer those we are speaking to. For the moment. But that does not put people off. They are interested to listen to us because we seem empathetic to their lives and their problems.
We tend to believe that being illiterate and uneducated hampers an individual’s understanding of systems and processes that govern their lives. But I am happy to see that that is not necessarily true. Many of the people we meet are intuitive and intelligent and have very insightful comments on why they are in a situation of poverty and disenfranchisement. For instance, one construction worker told us “Kheti karne se paise kisne kamaaye hain, kheti karne keliye to paise chahiye”, which translates to “One does not earn money from farming, one has to earn to be able to be a farmer.” A telling commentary on the plight of the million engaged in subsistence farming across the nation, with small land holdings supporting large families.
In the context of women’s issues as well, many upper class urban people assume that less educated rural folk treat their women badly, or that they have less regard for the rights and dignity of their women. That is not true either, even though cultural norms make this seem so. For instance, the fact that women cover their heads and behave in a more subdued manner in public may not mean that they are dis-empowered within the household. Many of the women we met were vocal and completely involved in decision making for the home, including financial decisions. Many women in urban migrant families work as well and therefore have a fair understanding about financial issues like affordability, savings, repatriation of income, expenditure, etc. It must be said though that these women find it much harder to have identity papers in Gurgaon because the nature of their work is far more informal that their menfolk who usually work in semi-formal or formal jobs (drivers, guards, cleaners, retail assistants) with contracting agencies.
An interesting case in this regard was that of a middle aged gentleman from Bihar who works as a security guard in one of Gurgaon’s glittering skyscraping office buildings. His two grown sons work somewhere close to their village and are educated until Class XII and BA respectively. Their wives, though, have BA and MA qualifications and the latter aspires to do a PhD! I was intrigued and I asked him about how this came about. His story was so simple and interesting.
He said: “Girls nowadays want to study too. When we fixed the marriage for my older son, we knew there would be some time between the wedding and the gauna (when the girl actually comes to reside with the husband’s family) because my son was still studying, so my daughter in law asked me if she could study too. She completed her BA in her father;s house. When she came to our home, my son was away from the village working, so she went ahead and did her MA as well. Today, she has a job as a secretary in the local Bank of Baroda Bank and supports her own financial needs as well as her child’s. Why would I object to something that helps my family be more financially secure? Together, my son and his wife can be financially independent and maybe I will not have to be here in Gurgaon so far from my family forever!” We also found out that the same man had paid Rs 20,000 in bribe to get his younger daughter-in-law a job as an Aanganwadi worker in the village; a government job is considered the ultimate panacea for all troubles in Bihar, UP and most of rural north India.
If I think of the many urban educated households I know that actively or passively deter their womenfolk from going outside the home to work, or at least give them a darned hard time about it, stories like these seem reassuring and logical.
I was also struck by the number of fathers who take hands on care of their infants in poor migrant families, contrary to our perception that women are saddled with all child rearing responsibilities among the poor. With no extended family for support, these families live in one-room tenements with shared toilets and baths and working in partnership to rear children is a key for couples to be able to make ends meet and survive the harsh lives of migrant workers who are far from home in an alien, urban environment.
I come away from the squalor and filth of those village streets, full of grime but full of hope. It is ironic that many of us who drive around in air conditioned cars and live in homes we own struggle to keep at bay the negativity in our lives; while those who have nothing in the bank and live a financially and socially precarious existence are willing to share their meager resources with you when you visit and are able to be positive about the future. Their biggest source of happiness is that they are spending their hard earned money on investments into the future like education for their children. It is another matter that the quality of the education they pay so much for can be very questionable. A story for another day….