Tuesday, 10 April 2018

Be ashamed, very ashamed

How do you put the lives of 1.25 billion Indians into perspective on the back of economics and various studies? It seems, anybody who earns less than Rs942 per month in rural areas or Rs1,407 in cities lives below the poverty line. And that, as a nation, we are doing a pretty damn good job of raising incomes and the quality of people’s lives.
Each year, reports indicate that more people are crossing over that cursed line. We are, apparently, on our way to become a superpower.
However, the truth is that these reports on the “Other India”, as writers like me and readers like you condescendingly describe them, are a tub of shit.
It started to fall into place two weeks ago when, for reasons I don’t intend to delve into, I thought it appropriate to terminate the services of a driver whom I had hired a few months ago. The family needs a lot of ferrying around and I need a handyman on call as well.
As is the wont in Indian homes, when domestic help is needed, word travels and people come knocking. This time around, I thought I would try search for an appropriate candidate through Babajob—for the uninitiated, a platform that helps connect the unorganized Indian workforce to those looking for their services.
After browsing over what the platform has to offer, I paid Rs1,199 and signed up for one of their plans. I screened 53 applicants and rejected 33 because they didn’t pass some mandatory filters. After all, the person who would come on board would spend a good part of their working hours with my family and I needed to feel comfortable with leaving them in his charge. Eventually, I got in touch with six of them, with all of whom I had some very interesting conversations.
Before I get into some detail, may I suggest you cast your eye on the images reproduced below? These insights emerged from the Employers Resources Page on Babajob. It indicates my willingness to pay Rs13,000 a month for somebody willing to do a 10-hour shift with allowances for every extra hour and a Diwali bonus makes my offer an excellent one.
The first number I called was answered by a candidate’s mother. Apparently he wasn’t around. When I told her the reason for my call, her voice turned into one of desperation. “My son needs a job baba,” she pleaded, and asked for my number so that he may call back. I shared it with her and, sure enough, he called a little later. Let’s call him JD.
He sounded smart. It turned out he was 21, hadn’t worked as a driver before and dreamed of going to a catering college. Now, with a licence in hand, a driving job looks likes an opportunity to earn and save just about enough to pay his way through college.
His mother works as a domestic worker that fetches her in the region of Rs6,500 every month. I asked him what kind of pay he was expecting. At least Rs13,000, he said. But he could not put in more than eight hours because he needed the time to take on assignments at catering agencies as well, both to earn a little more and to get experience that would boost his chances for college. As much as he sounded like a nice bloke, I gave him the pass.
The next man I called was married with two kids. He works with a lady whom he swears by and pays him Rs15,000 each month. And how does he spend the money, I asked him.
• Rs5,000 goes into a shared pool for his joint family’s expenses
• To save for the future, he has gotten himself a place in a remote hamlet for which he pays a monthly instalment of Rs7,000
• Rs3,400 as a life insurance premium
• Add to this Rs3,385—the minimum payment he made every month on the Rs52,000 or so he had totted up as debts on the back of credit card bills
When added up, it is significantly more than the Rs15,000 he earns.
On weekends, the lady he works for doesn’t need him. That’s when he doubles up as a shampoo salesman. And how much does he expect me to pay him, I asked.
“And how does that solve your problem?”
Because, he said, she doesn’t see value in paying Rs1,000 more for a man whom she uses intermittently and gives the weekends off. Rs1,000 doesn’t mean anything to her.
But to him, it does.
I reasoned though that even if I did pay him the money that he may switch jobs, I cannot buy his allegiance. The compulsions he lives under are such.
Many such conversations later, I finally hired VG. He is 38. Though his résumé suggested he wants Rs13,000, the first thing he told me when we met was that he could not settle for less than Rs15,000. I suggested we go for a drive.
On a whim, I asked him if he would take me to his house. I told him it’s not because I suspect his antecedents, but because I am curious. We snaked past a labyrinth of lanes and bylanes I didn’t know existed near where I live. Finally, he parked my car near a playground.
His house was part of a double-storeyed, windowless slum tenement. Unlike most houses, you get into this one through a kitchen—spotless, with steel vessels that seemed to have been painstakingly maintained over the years. It opens into a small room where his old mother, perhaps in her 80s, now lives. And next to that is yet another one, perhaps less than 10 ft by 10 ft, that belongs to him and his wife. Above that, he told me, is a loft that visitors may sleep in whenever they come by.
Just that I may make them feel comfortable and convey the impression I feel at home, I asked his wife if I may have a cup of chai. VG looked embarrassed and asked if I’m okay with black tea—because, he said softly, they cannot afford milk.
The next thing I heard was a flurry of activity behind me. His wife had scurried over to the neighbours’ house in search of milk. She managed. What finally came my way was a cup of super sweet milky tea. I took my time to sip it and asked VG to tell me why he needs more than the market average of Rs13,000. He had already told me that his father, now dead, was a mill worker in Mumbai. He had paid Rs40 many decades ago to buy the house they live in now. So, he doesn’t have to bother about rentals.
That said, he started life out as a loader at the Mumbai airport. When it was privatized, he was among those who lost his job. The union took cudgels with the new management and he was expected to pay his part of the contribution to fight a legal battle. Nothing came of it. But it ate through all of his savings and he was eventually left jobless.
Two years ago, he took to the only other thing he knew—driving. Between all of the temp agencies that send him on assignments, the money he earns isn’t enough to make his unfortunate ends meet.
For instance, because his house doesn’t have an attached toilet, the family has to use a badly maintained public utility. Two years into their marriage later, his pregnant wife fell as she was walking into one and had a miscarriage, and the complications persist. She continues to suffer and it costs him at least Rs7,000 each month to pay for her bills. That rules out all possibilities of her working as well.
Then there is his brother, who was born debilitated. Because they cannot afford to keep him in Mumbai, he was dispatched to a kind uncle’s home. But he needs to pay at least Rs3,000-4,000 each month for his upkeep.
His old and ailing mother’s expenses are rather unpredictable as well. There are times she needs medical attention. More often than not, the municipal hospital they take her to doesn’t have enough beds.
He maintains a 10-year-old motorbike that needs at least two tanks of petrol each month to travel to his place of work at the appointed hour and return home at whatever hour his work may end. Add to this, what it takes to eat three sparse, square meals a day. After meeting all of these, there is no room for luxuries like tea with milk in it.
By now, it was painfully obvious to me that the Rs13,000 plus the so-called perks I was willing to throw in and what showed up in the statistics as “Excellent” is horribly, horribly inadequate. I asked VG if he was willing to wait 15 days to take up my assignment. He said he would if he could. But he will take the first thing that comes his way. He needs a job. Yesterday. The part-time assignments he lives on is inadequate to meet tomorrow. I agreed to pay him Rs15,000 and asked him join me right away.
Over the past couple of days, I have had very many conversations with him, including on how he uses his phone. His take was that though he has a device, he keeps data services switched off “because it is too expensive”. The phone is only intended to be a tool that people can reach out to him and that he may reach out to others.
The only time he switched on data services was to post an ad on Babajob and a few other similar sites. When looked at from his eyes, all of the noises on how India is one of the cheapest places in the world to access the Internet from is a cruel joke.
Perspective. It is all about perspective.
Just that you may get an idea of what I mean by that, if you are reading this online now, from whatever device you are on, and after factoring in that Mintoffers this material to you for free, you must be obscenely rich. You can afford to pay for the data you are consuming.
The “Other India” cannot. Be ashamed. Be very ashamed.

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