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KS NARAYANAN | Issue Dated: December 1, 2013, New Delhi
Tags : Indian households | slaves | violence against domestic helps | murder | Rakhi Bhadra |

More than a decade now, stories of India surging ahead impatiently trying to claim its long-sought status as an economic giant, with a burgeoning, acquisitive, consuming middle class has hit the headlines. It is the same middle class, which is often dismissive when reminded that it co-exist with much a larger population that struggles to feed their families and themselves,” wrote Harsh Mander former IAS officer and member of the National Advisory Council in his book, Ash in the Belly: India’s unfinished battle against hunger.



While meagre pension schemes and rural employment guarantee plans in India’s hinterland are some solace, it is not enough. Such are the challenges faced by the ordinary peasant that a few opt for suicide, others explore and get exploited and those lucky to get work in factories find conditions not much better than how Charles Dickens described in his classic novels of Victorian England.


 There are yet others – many thousands of them – who end up as domestic servants chasing their dreams of a bare decent life, regular food, clothes and shelter but are treated no better than personal ‘slaves’ in Indian households. Maids and servants are meant to be used, abused and shabbily treated and in some cases, even killed. Sadly, this is not happening in any boon dock: it is part of a rising trend in the national capital, metro cities and in our neighbourhood and homes by the so-called educated elite upon who rests the responsibility of providing leadership.


Consider this:


Durga was barely 11 when she came to Delhi from backward Jharkhand to work as a domestic help, her only option to escape the dreary life of grinding poverty and pain back home. She started working as a maid at the home of a doctor in west Delhi. But Durga's dreams went up in smoke when her employer started beating and abusing her for small mistakes. “She would slap me and shout at me for no reason, I was made to stand under the summer sun and not given food, locked inside the house,” she narrated her tale of horror which ended only when she managed to call her parents who contacted the police. She was rescued from her west Delhi flat in 2012 after serving as a battered domestic help for a few months.


Durga is just one of the examples. In the last one year, more than 100 cases of violence against domestic helps have been reported from Delhi alone. (See box 1).


Take the case of BSP MP Dhananjay Singh from Jaunpur in Uttar Pradesh and his doctor wife Jagriti Singh working in central Delhi's prestigious Ram Manohar Lohia hospital. Both were arrested for allegedly torturing their maid to death and severely beating up another domestic help.


The police has booked Jagriti under IPC sections 302 for murder, 307 attempt to murder, and the Juvenile Justice Act for torturing and murdering her maid Rakhi (35) and assaulting servant Ramphal(17) with rods and electric iron. According to Ramphal's testimony, Jagriti Singh beat him and Rakhi Bhadra, the deceased 35-year-old woman from West Bengal, one terrible Sunday night with an iron rod, sticks, and quite incredibly, with the horns of a dead animal. The beatings were a regular feature for several months. According to the victim’s blood curling testimonies, Jagriti Singh would brand their private parts with a smoldering iron rod – purely on a whim. As further punishment, she would make them stand in the sun for long hours, the police said. The accused couple, who got married in 2009 and have a three year-old son, are reported to have filed for divorce.


Sadly, say activists, perpetrators of these crimes tend to get away easily given their class, status and economic power and the absence of strong laws for domestic workers. Some of the accused are highly educated and well placed in life, supposed to set standards for the lesser blessed.


Denied bail twice, high flying executive Vandana Dhir from posh south Delhi stands charged of torturing her maid brutally including letting her dogs loose on the victim, is in judicial custody. Metropolitan magistrate Gomati Manocha dismissed the bail plea and directed jail authorities to conduct psycho-analysis therapy and provide counseling to her.
Observing Dhir deserved no leniency as she had treated the victim in a gruesome and dastardly manner, magistrate Manocha said the accused exhibited such monstrosity as incapable of being explained as the conduct of a normal human being.


For some like BSP MP Dhananjay Singh, the brush with law is not for the first time and they know how to grease system well. According to police records, he is facing more than two dozen serious criminal charges, including murder, intimidation and running a crime syndicate. Singh married Jagriti after his first wife’s death a few years ago under mysterious circumstances, as did his sister and a servant. Not-so-surprisingly, no complaint has been filed against Singh in these cases far. He wields far too much political power and muscle for anyone to stick his neck out.


Activists engaged in their one-sided battle with this scourge insist on the need for greater public debate and awareness. B Ravi Kant, founder member and president of Shakti Vahini, an NGO which rescues hapless domestic servants, says there is need to discuss inhuman exploitation of domestic servants openly at public forums. This alone will pave the way to create adequate laws. ‘‘There has been a rise in such cases. There is an all-round debasement in society. Abuses are rampant thanks to feudalism even in metros. It is also linked to the economic situation of the people. People have suddenly got rich, and this makes them ill-treat those who are poor or are working for them,” he told TSI. (See Interview)


Besides inhuman behaviour by employers, two major issues involve protection of domestic servants. First is the absence of adequate laws, and second regulations for the placement agencies which are involved in trafficking human labour.


In the Vandana Dhir case, the court said legislation is much needed to regulate placement agencies through which domestic helps are recruited. “The placement agencies existing today have become havens of exploitation and are unable to ensure the wellbeing of the workforce employed through them,” it said. The court further added: ‘‘To bring about a positive change and also to protect basic human rights of this large but marginalised and exploited workforce, a legislation is much needed requiring mandatory registration of placement agencies, payment of minimum wages to workers, decent living conditions and diet, security and protection against physical or sexual abuse or exploitation.’’ Typically, girls from West Bengal, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Andhra Pradesh and Kerala, are usually brought as domestic help. They are often lured to Delhi by a placement agency agent, who brings them on the pretext of job but then ‘sells’ them to an employer. In the national capital, there are virtually thousands of such illegal agencies but there is no exact data on them.


India announced a health insurance scheme for domestic workers in May 2012 and included them in a 2013 law prohibiting sexual harassment in workplace. Yet there is no specific law to safeguard the rights of domestic workers. The employer can be booked under laws preventing child labour if a child below 14 years is employed as domestic help. For children between 14 and 18, the Juvenile Justice Act comes into play. For crimes in which the domestic help is an adult, various sections of the Indian Penal Code are invoked. The draft Delhi Private Placement Agencies (Regulation) Bill lays emphasis only on the functioning of placement agencies and a background check of domestic workers. But the bill, which has been long-pending, is silent on the rights of domestic workers and on penalising employers found violating these rights. That is a loophole which has been gleefully exploited by potentially killer employers. 

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Posted By: Sana Rehman | Ahmedabad | December 26th 2013 | 11:12
Only an adequate body and legislation can empower domestic workers.
Posted By: Siddharth Kumar | Hyderabad | November 26th 2013 | 18:11
Every human being has basic human rights. So, there has to be some law to protect the domestic workers from inhuman exploitation.

Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017