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It Is Expensive To Be Poor

By Vidyadhar Date

03 June, 2016

Mumbai: A man murdered a woman in Mumbai recently because he was afraid she was going to deprive him of his job as a temporary watchman. This shows the crisis of employment in Mumbai. And this is a city which among all places in India is supposed to provide the maximum employment opportunity.

And the watchman security industry is one of the few industries which has seen a big job growth in the last few years. If jobs are not easily available even here then it is a serious situation. So far one of the few jobs available for the poor is of security guards in housing societies . There is a big demand for the jobs even though these are very poorly paid. I talk with these people sometimes while taking a walk to Joggers Park and find that many of them work in two shifts, each of 12 hours, day and night. This is because the pay for one shift is not enough even for subsistence. Many of them sleep at night and it is easy to blame them if one does not take into account the working conditions. Doing two jobs is the only way they can tackle their problem of homelessness.

Mumbai’s municipal commissioner recently talked of two items on top of his agenda - providing houses for the poor and to create jobs. But then Mumbai is mainly creating poorly paying jobs and there is not the faintest chance of these poor people ever being able to afford even the most miserable dwelling. And the government has not the slightest credibility in the scheme of providing houses to slum dwellers as this is aimed mainly at enriching the builders. Those not having access even to a slum have little future.

Chief minister Antulay brought about a legislation in the early eighties to provide security of employment to security guards and to regulate the industry of security agencies often run by retired cops or armymen. It worked for some time and then was scuttled by subsequent administrations.

The food needs of the watchmen have led to a new industry. Last night I saw two men on a motor cycle stopping in front of every building handing out plastic parcels to watchmen. This was their dinner of dal, chawal and sabji for Rs. 35. That comes to nearly Rs. 2000 per month for two subsistence meals a day. That may be one dinner expense in a restaurant for a better off person. But when a man makes Rs. 6000 doing a total of two jobs per day for a month, this is very unaffordable. There are other expenses and he has to send money home in U.P. or Bihar..

I also saw a couple of young men with their own motor cycles in front of a chemist shop handing out a home delivery of medicines. Such job creation is all right for survival but does not reflect a healthy economy. Clearly, the claims that India is the fastest growing economy in the world can hardly impress those who experience reality.

The laziness of the rich is creating a demand for home delivery. People want home delivery even from a shop in front of their house. This is leading to the creation of agencies which offer home delivery for a range of products from groceries to electric appliances. But this job creation has little value.

Besides, so many jobs are not only poorly paid but also hazardous. Three workers were suffocated to death while cleaning a drain pipe in the posh Palava city township coming up on the outskirts of Mumbai near Dombivali. Most such workers are denied basic protective measures in the hazardous job. Just as the railway network in the U.S. and Canada is said to be laid on the graves of workers killed during construction, our rich would be living on the graves of the poor who are killed while laboring for building the luxurious apartments for the rich.

It is expensive to be poor as the famous American novelist James Baldwin and researcher Barbara Ehrenreich have pointed out. I know of a domestic help who pays Rs. 3000 per month for a shelter in a slum while an extremely rich man enjoying the protection of the old Rent Act may be living in a sprawling house in a posh area in Mumbai paying much less than that.

For everything the poor have to pay more than the rich in proportion to their income. Since, the poor do not have a proper dwelling address, they do not get basic services. The rich who clog the streets with their cars do not realizing that the congestion is driving up the expense of an ordinary man who takes an auto rickshaw or a taxi in an emergency.

The system does not care for the poor as the rich with their supreme ignorance and prejudice universally believe that the poor are to blame for their lot, not the system.

Ordinary people it seems do not deserve basic amenities at public spaces even when they are paying for the services and even when they are engaged in boosting the economy. On the other hand the rich get preferential treatment.

So, one notices that it is safer to get a heart attack at the Mumbai airport than anywhere else. A front page report in the Times of India said so earlier this month. One can be assured of treatment within three minutes with the use of electronic equipment installed at over 100 points.

Fine. But how come it is difficult or almost impossible to get even first aid at our suburban or mainline railway stations or bus depots ? Many more people travel by trains than planes but it took a case in the high court to force the suburban railway system to agree to provide first aid boxes at railway stations in the last couple of years. And travelling by overcrowded trains is far more stressful and hazardous than planes. So the need here is much more. Besides chances of mishaps occurring at railway stations are much higher. Only two days ago, a slab on a drain collapsed at Vasai railway station and several people were injured and they fell into the slush.

No one expects the posh ambience of airports at railway stations or bus depots. But how can the authorities discriminate between two sets of service users when it comes to basic amenities ? One has never noticed uncomfortable seats at airports. Toilet and drinking water facilities are all over and easily accessible. Can one imagine an airport where passengers wait in heat and rain without a roof over their head ?

Medical tourism is cited as a reason for good medical facilities at the airport. But then so many ordinary people also travel by train and buses to get medical treatment. They may not be big consumers for five star hospitals. But they are travelers for a medical treatment though they are not tourists. The main reason for the discrimination is the extreme callousness of the political class and the upper class which think they can get away without providing even basic amenities to common people.

Some top industrialists in Mumbai recently went out of their way to seek better surfacing of Marine Drive and wrote a letter to the municipal commissioner making a bitter complaint. If only they thought about the neglect of other areas, life would be better.

There is a wider issue regarding railway stations and bus depots. These are prime public spaces used by lakhs of people. If only these are maintained well, if the authorities set a good example, it will help create a more social mindset, people will learn to use public spaces better, join in keeping them clean.

(Vidyadhar Date is a senior journalist and author of the book Traffic in the Era of Climate Change).



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