On Delhi’s Ragged Edges, Women Bear Highest Cost Of Scant Transport
Momeena (centre) is blind in one eye. She takes a shared rickshaw to work at a factory cutting loose threads from purses eight hours a day, six days a week for which she is paid Rs 5,500 a month. In India’s metros, women travel shorter distances, with most preferring to walk or take the bus to work, many choosing low paying jobs over long commutes.
Bawana (Delhi): When Momeena got a job at a purse factory on February 25, 2018, her husband flew into a rage. Never mind that he is, she said, a drug addict who beats her regularly, works occasionally and gives her money rarely. Yet, when she announced that she would be leaving home every day to go and work, he wasn’t happy, she said.
“People talk rubbish about women who go out to work,” said Momeena, who uses only one name. But she was undeterred. “For me going out is a way to forget all my problems at home.”
The problems are plenty. Momeena was born blind in one eye. Her younger daughter, now 10, was born with a more severe disability and cannot walk, talk or move without assistance. An elderly father with whom the family stays in a ramshackle brick house constructed on a 12.5 sq m plot here on the north-west outskirts of Delhi, contributes what he can spare from giving tuition classes at home.
Momeena wasn’t waiting for her husband’s approval. “I don’t need his permission,” she said, “At least now I don’t have to beg for money from my family and neighbours every time my child is ill.”
It wasn’t easy for her to get a job. Not many people want to hire a woman with one eye. But a neighbour put in a word, and Momeena now has a job that pays her Rs 5,500 a month for cutting loose threads from purses eight hours a day, six days a week.
She’s not complaining. It’s a regular income for a woman who has only studied until the sixth grade. Unlike many women here who prefer to walk to work, Momeena takes a shared rickshaw, the fare each way is Rs 5, but she has no other choice since the factory is too far away for her to reach on foot.
India’s women are opting out of employment at a rising rate. Over 10 years to 2011, the year of the last census, as many as 19.6 million women fell off the job map at a time of increasing educational attainment and economic growth. At 24%, India’s female labour force participation is now the second-lowest in South Asia, just above Pakistan.
IndiaSpend’s ongoing nationwide investigation (read part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5, part 6, part 7 and part 8), which examines why women are quitting jobs, revealed a complex layer of constraints, from the burden of housework to social attitudes.
In part 9 of the series we visit a resettlement colony on the outskirts of Delhi to understand the link between physical infrastructure, specifically transportation, and women’s participation in economic activity.
Located some 40 km away from the broad, tree-lined boulevards of Lutyen’s Delhi, Bawana (population: 73,680), like many of the city’s 45 resettlement colonies on the periphery of India’s capital, is the sum of its discards. When the Supreme Court ordered polluting industries out of Delhi, they came here. When slums were demolished and squatters were rendered homeless, they, too, came here.
Across India, women bear the highest cost of forced eviction. For instance, if the slum where a domestic worker lives is relocated to the outskirts of the city, she is not likely, given the cost and time taken, to be able to travel 40 km or so to get to work. And, so, she will end up quitting her job and will opt for a low-paying one that is closer home.
In India’s metros, women travel shorter distances, with most preferring to walk or take the bus to work. Men seem to have greater choice, with bicycles, two-wheelers and four-wheelers to choose from.
Across India’s cities, women form only 22% of people who travel for work. In Delhi, it’s just 15%, according to Census 2011. “Women’s choices, whether for jobs or for colleges, is often determined by distance,” said Kalpana Viswanath of Safetipin, an NGO that supports safer cities.
For instance, Viswanath said, a 2017 study by economist Girija Borker found that women in Delhi University actually chose lower-ranked colleges if it made their commute shorter and safer.
Women may turn down better employment opportunities further away from home in favour of lower-paying jobs when public transportation is unreliable or unaffordable, said Viswanath.
Men and women also use public transportation very differently, found a December 2017 report, Women and Transport in Indian Cities, by the Institute for Transportation & Development Policy (ITDP) and Safetipin. For instance, women tend to combine multiple destinations within one trip--to pick up groceries on the way back from office, or drop a child off to childcare on the way to work.
“Gender-responsive transportation recognises not only the differences in the way men and women travel, but also addresses the inequities which women and girls face as users, transport workers and decision makers,” said urban planner and the report’s lead author, Sonal Shah. The goal of such an approach is to “enable women and girls’ access to social and economic opportunities”.
Safety concerns means women can’t leave home
Momeena’s family moved to Bawana from Yamuna Pushta in the early 2000s. Like the other houses on her lane, her house has no attached toilet, and since her daughter cannot be carried to the community toilet, she goes to the toilet on her bed, and Momeena just washes the sheets everyday. Like the other residents here, she gets running water for two hours every morning.
“Public policy can address inequalities in the household division of labour by supporting initiatives that reduce the amount of time women spend doing unpaid work,” noted a 1995 World Bank study. Improved water, sanitation, electrification and public transport are examples of policy intervention that would enable women to devote more of their time to income-generating, income-augmenting and income-saving activities, said the study.
Momeena’s house is located on one of the many identical narrow bylanes of the slum, lined with open sewers, goats and chickens running alongside. Piles of garbage lie rotting. Flies are everywhere.
But more than the lack of sanitation, for most parents, the big concern is the lack of safety. Described as the ‘most crime-wracked borough in the most crime-wracked city in the country’, outer Delhi (including Bawana) saw 1,093 abductions of children--an average of three a day--between June 1, 2014 and March 31, 2015, according to National Crime Records Bureau data.
For parents, this means extraordinary vigilance. Many mothers are simply unable to leave their children unattended and unsupervised for long hours. Momeena’s younger daughter is looked after by her elder daughter who is in the seventh grade. Her parents who live above her keep an eye on the girls. Is she worried about their safety when she’s gone? Momeena shrugged but looked away.
Shafeeqan, who also uses one name, has a husband who doesn’t have a regular job. So she needs to supplement the household income, which she does by packing agarbattis (incense sticks) at home. After sorting them according to size, she must make bundles of exactly 44 similar-sized agarbattis, six of these bundles are then slipped into in a tight, plastic sheath cover. For every 1,000 of these bundles of six--roughly a full day’s work--she is paid Rs 25.
“It’s very hard work but I don’t have a choice since I can’t go out and work until my daughter gets married,” she said.
Bawana was once slated to be the great industrial hub of Delhi, with small and medium enterprises churning out plastic toys, shoes, handbags, garments, fans, light bulbs, biscuits and so on. This dream didn’t quite materialise and, according to one report, over 5,500 of 16,000 factories and industrial plots are either vacant or not operational.
The women prefer factory jobs, such as they are, because they pay better than piecemeal work done at home, even though most pay only a third of the legally-mandated minimum wage of Rs 14,052.
Jamuna Kumari, who quit school after the sixth grade, has worked in various factories since she was 13. She earns Rs 8,500 at her present job at a readymade garments factory, working eight hours a day, six days a week.
Both Jamuna’s parents work in factories, as do two elder sisters. The youngest is still in school in the 11th grade. The responsibility of getting dinner ready falls on this sister. “Someone has to cook since we’re all exhausted when we get back,” shrugged Jamuna.
Like most women who work in factories, Jamuna prefers to walk to work. It’s a 30-minute walk each way along the Bawana Canal, a long, narrow stretch of water where boys can be seen swimming and older men drinking and doing drugs. Petty theft along this canal is so commonplace that it is often not even reported to the police, said Jamuna. The real danger is of more serious crimes against women, including rape, and so Jamuna knows better than to walk to work and back alone.
Groups of boys pass lewd comments, but it’s a daily hazard that she has learned to ignore, she said.
Sexual harassment on public spaces in Delhi is now so commonplace that it has become a stereotype--a fact of life that girls and women like Jamuna take in their stride.
Sexual harassment in public places is rampant and an overwhelming concern of 85.4% women--higher than fears of a violent physical attack and even rape--found a 2010 study of 5,010 women and men in Delhi by the NGO Jagori.
Almost two of three women reported facing sexual harassment between two to five times over the previous year. The harassment occurred day and night, in places secluded and crowded with most being reported from buses, public transport and roadsides, found the report.
Another report by ActionAid, released in 2016, found that 79% of women surveyed had experienced some form of harassment in public.
‘Transportation is the fulcrum that gets women to jobs’
The December 2012 gang-rape and murder of a young medical student in a bus in Delhi resulted in a focus on safety in public transportation. Various schemes have been announced, from GPS tracking and video recording in public transport vehicles, in 32 cities to a proposal for women-only ‘Tejaswini’ buses with women drivers and conductors in 2016 in Maharashtra.
“What we need currently is an economic development and a rights-based approach as well as concrete recommendations and actions to be taken by different stakeholders,” said Sonal Shah, the urban planner “Since gender is not a core competence in urban local bodies, there is a gap in understanding what they need to do.”
“Transportation is the fulcrum that allows women to participate in the workforce,” said Shah.
Yet, the factories prefer hiring younger women, said Radha, a social worker with Jagori who lives in Bawana. The reasons are many: Women workers are paid less, and they don’t generally unionise or agitate for their rights. When a fire at a firecracker storage unit broke out on January 21, 2018, 10 of the 17 workers killed were women.
The women don’t mind working in the factories because this is the best work they can get for their limited education, said Radha. But after 40, it is impossible to get any work in the factories.
Aarti Devi was laid off some six months ago and now does piecemeal work for a fan factory, assembling a plastic part that she calls a ‘conductor’, making Rs 90 for every 1,000 ‘conductors’ she assembles by screwing eight tiny bolts with an equally tiny screwdriver. It’s a job that strains her eyes, and, so, when her kids are home, everybody pools in and helps her complete her required 1,000 pieces.
Aarti Devi does piecemeal work for a fan factory, assembling a plastic part that she calls a ‘conductor’, making Rs 90 for every 1,000 ‘conductors’. It’s a job that strains her eyes, and, so, when her kids are home, everybody pools in and helps her complete her required 1,000 pieces.
The women are vulnerable to the slightest fluctuations in the job market.
Immediately after demonetisation, many lost jobs, as did their husbands. “I sat at home for five months without any work,” said Jamuna “It was an awful time.”
This is the latest in an ongoing nation-wide IndiaSpend investigation into India’s declining female labour force participation.
Read previous stories in this series:
(Namita Bhandare is a Delhi-based journalist who writes frequently on the gender issues confronting India.)
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