Sunday, March 14, 2010

How do they survive?

Yesterday's Business Standard had an article entitled "Children of a Lesser God" about the low salaries that women earn in India, based on a Survey of Household Income (NSHIE) done in 2004-5 by the NCAER. It is definitely worth a read for those interested in discrimination and differences in pay between men and women, returns to education, and overall wage levels in India. It was shocking to me, even as I live here, in terms of the low levels. Yes, it was five years ago, so the wages probably have risen some, and the costs I will cite below reflect today's higher prices.

By Earning Status
Illiterate 33,680 12,923
Up to primary 42,129 17,151
Middle (8th)sch 43,010 19,805
Matric (10th) 60,997 31,175
Higher Second.Sch 68,068 43,590
Graduate 85,211 62,636
Post-graduate 106,728 77,683
Diploma/Vocat 104,308 102,408
Other 114,446 69,413
AVERAGE 43,885 14,994
Income in Rupees per year for salaried class.
Source: NCAER, NSHIE 2004-5

These numbers tell all kinds of interesting stories. Discrimination prevails at all levels, but seems to diminish somewhat as women get more educated. All the numbers are quite low, and the average especially so. The average for men is under US$1000, and for women less than the amount a bank account holder can withdraw in one day. In order to illustrate the numbers today, I'll talk about some of the folks at the lower scale around here.

Lakshmi, the woman who cleans for us has been sick, and her husband the vegetable man has been struggling to keep it all together -- financially because of costs of medicine, tests, and hospitalization; managerially at the vegetable stand between the money needed to buy the veggies in the a.m. as well as help at the stand that she provides; and on a family level to take care of their kids. Luckily, her parents came in from their village to help out.

Here is a picture of her, she was healthier, playing Holi with Amartya. Her husband, pictured below, works very hard, leaving at 5 a.m . to buy vegetables at the markets to bring them to the shack in our complex. He usually opens around 9, and serves the folks in our complex until 6:30 pm, and then places the veggies on a cart to take outside the complex where the construction workers buy their veggies. Then he lugs the cart back to his shed, and rides his bike back to their house (abt a mile away), where he usually arrives around 8:30 or 9, and collapses into bed. And then thing continue the next day.
Lakshmi forgets to eat, and gets headaches, and gets sick frequently. We encourage her to eat, and drink, while she is at our house -- a few hours a day -- but she often is running from place to place. She now only works here, arriving at 10 or so after getting her kids off to school and walking here -- now longer because of the path to the village getting closed off because of building -- something I wrote about a few months ago. She is here until 3 or so, when she goes back home for when the kids get home from school. She and her husband are Tamilians, from a town a few hours out of Bangalore, who have moved her because there are better educational opportunities for their kids. But she and her husband both work all the time, and he had never been to the neighborhood across the main road before he had to take her to a clinic there.

There is a government hospital in Yelahanka, that used to be a town, but now is a neighborhood of greater Bangalore, to which she goes, and to which they bring their kids when they are sick. The expensive private hospital nearby, the closest hospital (Columbia Asia Hospital -- close to medical tourism standards, the topic for another post) is very expensive by Indian standards, but was the only place with available space for exams that needed to be done in the middle of the night, so tests that cost 12,000 rupees (or 3 months of her salary) were run. Now she is in a little clinic where we is being treated with IVs for dehydration and drugs for salmonella -- I think in the 300 rupees/night range. In addition to her income of 4000 rupees a month, her husband probably clears around 10,000 rupees a month at the vegetable stand. Both can read and write Tamil and minimal English, she with an 8th grade education and he with high school. She's well above the average income for women as noted above, as is he. But they are always one sickness away from the edge.

Moving further down the earnings scale, here are some details about another Lakshmi -- the cook who comes to cook dinner for us about once a week. One and a half years ago, she charged 100 rupees, but now it is 200 rupees for a great dinner, about two hours of work. She prepares food, and cleans up as well. Her food is wonderful, although she is frustrated that we always ask for the same dishes -- yummy chicken curry, Amartya's favorite cabbage, some pumpkin dish (soup sometimes, really great). I just need to hide the chiles, and remind her that she doesn't need to add sugar, or ketchup, or too much pepper or salt. She is from Kerala, and has converted to Christianity (a Pentacostal church), where she says the singing helps her feel happy.

Her daughter still lives in Kerala, and her husband is ill and can't work -- and requires lots of medicine. She currently is having a hard time making ends meet -- she works everyday for a bachelor gentleman for whom she cooks meals (monthly 3500 rupees for 5 days a week), and cooks for a few other people like me, who probably would give her another 3000 rupees or so a month. She said her rent is 2500 a month, bus pass recently increased to 700 (but sometimes she needs to come by autorickshaw if the bus decides not to come into her neighborhood, which happens if it rains, or if there is traffic, or if the bus driver doesn't feel like it), water and electricity, medicines ..... She is hoping that she can get two regular cooking gigs at one of the fancier buildings coming up around us, where she could charge 4000/house.

More precarious still are the two Nirmalas, pictured below. They are cleaning ladies at CSTEP.
Their total compensation is probably under 4000 rupees a month (about US$87 at current exchange rates).

How do folks survive? This topic clearly deserves more energy than I can give it today, or probably ever, but I will try to return to it from time to time.

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