In Jaipur, Rajasthan’s capital, a city of 30 lakh people that is bustling with traditional bazaars, offices and modern buildings, there are pockets where government beneficence does not reach and where hundreds of families work to eke out a survival without any social security.
Mansarovar is one of the city’s largest residential complexes. In the middle of these securely-built, comfortable houses are abandoned stone structures that migrant construction workers and those working as domestic workers for local households, call home.
Seema Vairva, a dalit, lives inside one such dilapidated, dingy structure. Vairva, a domestic worker, who has an eight-month-old son, has just finished making 20 rotis on the ‘chulha’ (stove) but has not eaten any. “I don’t feel hungry, I don’t feel like eating,” says the frail 20-year-old. She weighs 30 kilos and she along with her son has been diagnosed with ‘khoon ki kami’ (anaemia). Her infant son weighs six kilos, a case of ‘moderate malnutrition’ by the standards of the government-run Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS).
The dismal nutritional profile of women working in the informal sector is a recurring story throughout Jaipur. Despite her condition, Vairva has stayed away from doctors. She did purchase some prescribed medicines for her son once, but never for herself. “The last time we went he asked for Rs 800 (US$1=Rs 51) for treatment for both of us, and Rs 200 as consulting fee. We cannot afford it,” she says. Private health care is beyond her means and the one time she went to a government clinic, she returned disappointed. “It was very crowded and the nurse almost turned me away,” she recalls. The family has already exhausted their Rs 15,000 savings on a surgery she had to undergo for “a tumour” in her stomach. Vairva’s husband works as a helper in a small restaurant in the neighbourhood, earning Rs 160 a day, a little over the state minimum wage for skilled work of Rs 155. Till her son’s birth, she worked as domestic help in four houses, earning Rs 100 a day. Currently, she has taken a break.
Vairva’s day begins at 5 am. She makes several trips to the hand pump a few hundred metres away, to fill six buckets of water and an earthen pot. Her mother- and father-in-law work as construction workers. The family of four had moved to Jaipur more than five years back from their village Pasrotiya in Tonk district but do not have a ration card here. So they cannot get the 25 kilos of subsidised foodgrains, the entitlement for ration card holders living below the poverty line.
The young woman then cooks a morning meal of rotis on the earthen chulha using wood as fuel and inhaling a lot of smoke in the process. She packs lunch for her mother-in-law and father-in-law, who leave for work at 7 am. Usually the family eats ‘dal’ left over from the previous night and sometimes she cooks a seasonal vegetable. Soon after, she leaves for work. “I come back at 1 pm, then clean the house and wash clothes. I usually don’t feel like eating in the afternoon. Then, I leave again at 4 pm to clean utensils in the same houses,” she says. It’s mostly Vairva’s mother-in-law who buys household provisions – fuel wood, wheat flour, dal or a seasonal vegetable, sometimes a litre of milk, but almost never any fruit.
To boost the nutritional content of her infant son’s meal, every now and then Vairva tries to include ‘suji’ (semolina) and banana. However, there is never any for her, though she clearly needs it. The situation was pretty much the same during her pregnancy when she continued her grueling work routine – typically she has a working day of 16 hours – almost till the day she gave birth and lived on roti and sabzi. “I had a craving for oranges, so sometimes I would eat roti with oranges,” she smiles.
What about visiting her neighbourhood anganwadi, centres where infants, children, pregnant and lactating mothers can get food free of cost under the ICDS? Sadly, Vairva is not aware of any in her area.
The results of the city-wide health camp tests organised recently by the Mehnatkash Kalyan evum Sandarbh Kendra (MKSK), an NGO working on this issue since 2005, reflected this general neglect of nutritional health: Of the 114 women from Parvati Nagar who underwent haemoglobin tests, all were found to be anaemic. The lowest haemoglobin level tested was 5.8 gram/100ml, while just four recorded the highest reading of 10, with most women registering a reading between 7 and 8, which is far below the normal minimum level required of 12. Moreover, two-thirds of the women in these camps were underweight. According to Harkesh Bugalia, Secretary, MKSK, “The anganwadi workers are not doing enough to tell these women about the services meant for them in their centres. Hardly any of these women go there.”
In the Parvati Nagar Khadda basti, a few kilometres from Mansarovar, Suraj Devi shakes her head when asked whether she has ever been to her nearby anganwadi. She is finishing sweeping the one-room ‘kacha’ house where she lives with her three sons, a daughter-in-law, and four grandchildren. They belong to the Valmiki community that has traditionally earned its livelihood lifting night soil despite a Supreme Court ban on the practice. Suraj Devi and her sons work as sanitation workers. They collect garbage from 10 to 15 households every morning earning Rs 50 a month per household. To supplement this monthly family income of Rs 3,000, her sons at times earn an additional Rs 1,000 to Rs 1,500 by unclogging neighbourhood gutters.
Although she has not heard of the anganwadi, her grandchildren Laxmi, 6, and Shiva, 3, get food through the mid-day meal scheme being run at the government school in the slum. The school is a brick structure with no roof and open on two sides. But if you thought that at least the kids get one healthy meal a day, then their grandmother is quick to respond, even claiming that she has spotted rat droppings in the cooked rice children consume.
Both Laxmi and Shiva are underweight. Suraj Devi narrates how her daughter-in-law, Shiva’s mother, Deepmala died in childbirth three years ago. “When she started having labour pains in her eighth month of pregnancy, we rushed her to the government hospital in Chandpur, eight kilometres away, but they refused to admit her saying they had no space and that she was not yet nine months into her pregnancy. Deepmala gave birth to twins that night; Shiva survived, she and the other baby died within an hour,” Suraj recalls. Medical negligence apart, Deepmala’s death can surely be attributed to the lack of proper nutrition and additional supplements that pregnant women need, but those like Deepmala and Vairva can’t afford.
Suraj’s neighbour, Arati Devi, a domestic worker, who migrated from Bihar 15 years back says after years of struggle her husband, who works as a mason, and she manage to earn enough to afford a private school fee of Rs 400 for their two children. But they struggle under debt. “I fell very ill with a stomach illness and was in the hospital for a month. And we wanted to build a ‘pucca’ house. We borrowed Rs 80,000 at 60 per cent interest rate from a moneylender. I don’t know how we will repay that,” she says. The Above Poverty Line ration card the family got last year after years of trying helps, she says, but every day is an uncertain struggle.
In the bustling Rajasthan state capital there are hundreds of Seema Vairvas, Artis, Suraj Devis, women who work day-in-and-day-out in the informal sector and yet are unable to scrape together one nutritious meal a day for themselves and their children.