Sunday, May 03, 2009

Narmada's vote

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, May 3, 2009

The Other Half

Who would Narmada Devi have voted for in this election? I met her on a cool afternoon in the town of Madhubani in Bihar, much before the election dates had been announced. She sat with four other women on a sun-drenched verandah spinning cotton yarn on one of those instruments rarely seen these days, the ambar charkha. The women are paid Rs. 50 for every kilo of yarn they spin. And it takes them eight days of spin that amount.

Narmada Devi walks one kilometre to and from her house to Madhubani’s once-famous Khadi Gramudyog established in 1919. Today, its sprawling 17 acres consists of a collection of crumbling and dilapidated buildings and a handful of old men and women like Narmada Devi. From an institution that supplied Khadi fabric and products to all of India, and employed 22,000 people including 1,100 weavers in the surrounding villages, the Khadi Gramudyog today has barely 100 weavers, a handful of spinners and around 46 other workers. The latter are tasked with protecting the extensive properties belonging to the Gramudyog — a total of 65 acres in the district.

Avadh Narain Jha, who is in-charge of the Khadi Gramudyog, showed me dozens of ambar charkhas lying unused in the room adjoining the verandah where Narmada Devi sat. In another part of the campus, he pointed to the special charkhas that this institution once manufactured that could spin yarn fine enough to make muslin. Today, hardly anyone orders these charkhas, this elderly man who is waiting to retire told me.

Like most women her age, Narmada Devi could not tell me how old she was. But she did tell me the problems she faced sitting on her haunches for many hours spinning the charkha. Her right hand was stiff she said, her chest hurt and she had problems with her eyesight. But she had no option but to walk each day to the Khadi Gramudyog and spin for a few hours.
Steady decline

The decline of Khadi has been steady. But the story of how this has impacted the lives of thousands of workers in India’s villages has perhaps never been adequately recorded or acknowledged. Today, people in these villages would be more than happy to get the kind of work Khadi offered them in the past. But neither Jha, nor those who make policy for the development of Khadi in distant Delhi have the imagination or the determination, to revive this village industry.

The fate of Madhubani’s Khadi Gramudyog takes on a new relevance in present times. Recession is a word that brings to mind the loss of jobs in banking, BPOs, the IT sector, industry and even the media. But thousands of workers like Narmada Devi, including many women who are part of the growing informal sector, have been facing recession for much longer. Their loss of employment is a silent, creeping one, not a sudden termination. And unlike people in the formal sector who have some fall-back, some savings, some compensation paid out to them, some asset such as a house, women like Narmada Devi have nothing. If they lose even the little paid work available, they have no alternative.

The situation is not very different in places where employment is easier to find. The global recession has certainly hit the export sector in India. You see it played out in the lives of those who work in the smaller enterprises that feed into the larger export sector. Thus, in Dharavi in Mumbai, thousands of men and women work in small units producing garments for export. According to one such exporter, who has around eight units employing 700 workers, his orders have come down by one third. This means that the women in particular, who come in to work on a piece-rate basis as and when there is work, get much less work today than they did when the economy was growing.

(To read the rest of the article, click on the link above)

1 comment:

gaurav abbi said...

i like the way you bring up issues, but it will be better if there is some substantial solution for that also, may be by chance it can be helpful.