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May 13, 2021

The lives people live

May 13, 2021

It is sometimes extraordinary to look upon the kind of lives people live everywhere in the country. In many places in our major cities, stand tall houses, marked by marble tiles on the floors and chandeliers dangling from the roofs.

But has anyone ever peeped into the servant quarters of these homes? Has anyone looked at the lives expected of the people who polish the tiles and clean the chandeliers every day, or cook food that is placed on their banquet like tables spread out in the dining halls?

The answer appears to be that those who have built these homes care little about those who serve them and who toil for their comfort for sometimes as long as 14 hours a day. In many cases, despite the new domestic labour laws passed in the country some months ago, children as young as 10 or even younger, work in these homes. While the owner's own children may attend the best schools in the city, there is little concern about the education of 'the others', the children of the domestic staff, which labours in these homes.

Even more shocking is the manner in which these people are expected to live. In drastic contrast to the palatial living spaces of the owners stand the quarters of the domestic workers. In many cases, these are windowless, tiny spaces, which may be called rooms if one is generous in the use of that term. It is hard to imagine how anyone with sufficient funds to build the palaces they themselves live in can offer so little to another person who is born with the same flesh and blood and needs as those who employ him or her.

There are many other examples of such differences in our country. Sadly, over the years they appear to have grown and not shrunk. Wealth, though it appears to exist, does not trickle down in any form to the poorest members of society. The arrival of more and more amenities which can be imported from other countries means the poor are even worse off than before. There was a time when most people slept outdoors in open courtyards or on the roof of homes with mosquito nets to protect them from pests. Today, the rich have air-conditioned rooms and generators for when the power supply fails for most others in the same city. These differences are now so stark that they leave one wondering how people of the same nation can occupy two such different worlds.

The differences in the worlds of the rich and the poor are disturbing. The desperate need for some kind of equality has never been felt as sharply as is the case now. The Covid-19 pandemic has of course made life even more difficult for the poor. This may also be true of the rich, but at least they are able to afford better hospital care in most cases or as we are hearing, even fly to other countries to be vaccinated or simply to try and escape the pandemic.

We have seen the flights that have been taking off from India, taking their owners in private jets to places that are deemed safer in terms of Covid-19. Will we be seeing the same in our country? The possibility emphasises the need to bring groups from different income brackets closer together in one way or the other. It is difficult to understand how this can be achieved in a short period of time. But it may be possible to change mindsets so that a difference can be made over a longer period of time.

The best way to begin this endeavour is at the schools. The Single National Curriculum we hear about so often should also focus on making children of all income groups aware of their rights and the right of every other citizen in the country. There should be an understanding that only when everyone in a nation is protected and able to enjoy at least a basic standard of living can there be any sense of equality and any sense of the equation between the various groups. This is simply absent at this moment in time. We see small children order their maids even though these maids are themselves extremely young. The government has put in place a law. It is imperative that it is implemented fully and mechanisms created through which this can be achieved.

This is not an impossible task. In other countries, unions or committees or other bodies have been set up which allow domestic workers to claim their rights and to seek basic standards of work with holidays and sick leave as is permitted to those working in the formal sector. Our failure to dignify the poor means they are now treated virtually as if they were not human at all. No one thinks about how they may feel or how they are to survive the conditions they are forced into through the lives they live. There is little concern for the child who must scrub the floors of a massive house every day or the woman who washes clothes by hand even though her mistress herself runs a lavish kitchen equipped with all the latest technologies.

Unless we can create a greater sense of equality within society, there will be trouble in the days ahead. The situation is at times so desperate that it looks as if people will have no choice but to hunt out food, shelter, money from whatever source they can find. If this does indeed happen in the future, as some dystopian novels have predicted, it would not be surprising at all.

Our country has so many inequalities, it is difficult to even understand where to begin. Yet, a beginning has to be made. The government must lead it but other citizens too need to play a part and create a sense that every human is equal, no matter where he or she was born.

The writer is a freelance columnist and former newspaper editor.

Email: [email protected]