“Shyam Singh”, yells Mrs. A. “Shyam Singh, where are you?”.
Mrs. A is one of the residents of our building/housing society. She has run out of fresh coriander leaves and needs Shyam Singh to go to the nearby vegetable market and get some for her. But Shyam Singh is not there; he has been sent by Mr. B, another building resident, to get a pack of cigarettes. By the time Shyam Singh gets back, Mrs. M (yet another building resident) is calling also out for him; she needs him to go and get her a dozen eggs. He takes both the “orders” and proceeds to the nearby shops once again.
Let me introduce Shyam Singh here. He is the 48-year old watchman of our society and who has been working for the society and its residents from August 2001. I must also add here that he is our only watchman with duty hours from 9 am to 7 pm every day, with no weekly holidays (if he needs a day off, it is his responsibility to arrange for a replacement). During his working hours, Shyam Singh is at the gate, watching over the building and its residents, manning the gate for the residents’ vehicles, keeping out salespersons, allowing the courier and other delivery guys into the building, etc. As watchman of our housing society, it is also Shyam Singh’s responsibility to carry out any bank-related work of the society, as well pay the society’s electricity or water bills at the concerned offices.
At least this is what he is supposed to do. Unfortunately, Shyam Singh is unable to carry out these duties as he is also the unpaid 24X7 errand
boy man-cum-help-cum-aid for the residents of our building. He is forever going to the market to buy something or the other for them or helping them lug huge shopping bags to their flats or supervising the children of our building at play, or match-making domestic helps to the residents.
Let me describe Shyam Singh’s typical day. It begins quite early at 5.30 am when he begins washing the 10 odd cars and motor bikes in the building. By the time it is 6.30, the first “orders” of the day from the various residents start coming in—milk, bread, eggs, potatoes, onions. In between washing the cars and bikes, he completes these orders. By 8.15 am, it is time to dash off for a bath and have breakfast before reporting for the watchman’s duty at the gate at 9 am. By 10 am, the second round of “orders” of the day start trickling in—shampoo sachets, soap, kadipatta, mirchi, vegetables, dal, rice. Shyam Singh breaks for lunch at 1.30 pm and by 2 pm he is back at the gate for his watchman’s duties. By this time, the building children also start returning from school, which means that it is time for the third round of “orders”—chart paper, pens, pencils, erasers, maggi, bhel puri, pakoda, chocolate. This goes on till about 5 pm when Shyam Singh takes a tea break. Oh I forgot. If any of the building residents have gone shopping during the day (or afternoon or evening), then he has to lug the shopping bags to their houses and sometimes even help them unpack it. By 5.30 pm, the building children come down to play in the common area, supervised by Shyam Singh. At 7 pm, when Shyam Singh’s day as watchman is over, he goes for a bath and a change of clothes. But wait, his day is not over yet; there are many more things to be done. He has one more round of “orders” to execute—beer, wine, cigarettes, medicines—which continues till about 10 pm, when he has dinner. Shyam Singh’s day ends when the last car comes in and he can lock the society gates for the night. This is usually at midnight.
Sometimes, Shyam Singh is also given temporary assignments by the building residents. For example, Mrs. S, one of my neighbours, had a fall some months back and is not too mobile. Mr. S.
ordered requested Shyam Singh to make her walk within the house twice a day, every day. Then there are those residents who want their fans cleaned, their windows washed, their mattresses aired on the terrace, their fish or chicken cleaned… the list is endless.
For his role as the watchman of our society, Shyam Singh is paid a princely sum of Rs.3,500/- per month with perks, which include a rent-free
hole room to stay in, which has an attached toilet and bathroom. He earns an additional Rs.1,500/- from washing cars and bikes in the society. As for the errands or temporary assignments, he is not paid as this falls under part of the unwritten job descriptions for the watchman of our building. If at all he is paid it may be an occasional 5 rupee coin or a 10 rupee note, based on the whims and fancies of the giver.
No one in my building would agree and accept that they are exploiting Shyam Singh. And how would they? The society residents feel that since they are paying for Shyam Singh’s use of water and electricity, have actually given him a
hole room to stay in, give him a yearly bonus during Diwali, buy him an umbrella during the rains, give him 2 sets of uniform with our society’s name embroidered on it… is justification enough to treat Shyam Singh the way they do.
What is worse is that the exploitation doesn’t end with Shyam Singh alone; it extends to his visiting family members as well. His wife and his children have come to Mumbai for medical treatment, which is unavailable at their native place. During this period, his wife worked as a domestic help in one of the residents’ house, and cooked meals at another resident’s house—all for a pittance. Currently, his daughter-in-law, Sita, and grandson are here for medical treatment. Within hours of their arrival, the society residents swung into action—someone called Sita to wash clothes, another to cut vegetables, a third to clean the house …
The great Indian middle class is, arguably, the greatest perpetrator of exploitation in our society, a society which exploits its children, its women, its members, just about everybody. And like many other things, we are quite hypocritical about exploitation. Let me illustrate this point. One morning I got a call from Tina, an acquaintance, asking for information about a help line for children. She had just spotted some street children who were being forced to beg by an older adult and wanted to get some help for them. I passed on the number of a well-known help line for children, but couldn’t help thinking about Tina’s young, overworked, underpaid female domestic help, who was initially hired to only look after her baby, but was now doing all the housework with only a marginal increase in salary. Tina would never even consider her treatment of her domestic help as exploitation.
Thanks to the media, the most visible faces of exploitation in Indian society are that of children, women and Dalits and adivasis. Groups like domestic helps get covered sometimes, the most recent being a series of 3 articles published in the Times of India on 30 July 2011. These articles were based on a study that indicated that “domestic workers were paid, on an average, Rs.65 a day; most were in debt and got no holidays” (you can read the original articles here, here and here). But many other exploited groups do not get written about like watchmen, security guards (visit any mall and you’ll know what I mean) or the ward boys and girls in private hospitals.
The exploitative Indian is everywhere: in your neighbourhood, in your community, in your family, and maybe even within you. The saddest part is we do not acknowledge exploitation for what it is or our role in perpetuating this process. As for myself, I admit complete failure in trying to persuade my society in not using Shyam Singh for personal work, increasing his salary, or reducing his working hours. My failure has also ensured that I am party to that exploitation.
As for Shyam Singh, he is no less an exploiter. He uses his position as the watchman of the our housing society to bully Arjun (the guy who irons the clothes of most of the building residents) into ironing his clothes free of cost. Shyam Singh justifies his demand for this by saying that since he is the one who gave Arjun the contacts of building residents who wanted their clothes to be ironed, this was his commission! I have yet to find out who Arjun exploits, but I am sure there will be someone as the cycle of exploitation has to continue. 😦