Indian women are voting more than ever before. In many states, their turnout is now higher than that of men. But political discussions in the country rarely feature women – even in the media.
What are women thinking on the eve of the 2019 election?
Aarefa Johari and Nayantara Narayanan travel to find out in Half the Vote, a series that brings you the stories and perspectives of women – only women – on life and politics.
Saritha MOV spends her day stitching the lower seams of jerseys. She is a tailor at one of Bengaluru’s many garment factories. On many days she returns home with indigo stains on her left hand: as she pushes garments towards the needle, the colour of the jerseys rubs off.
“It stays for a long time even after I wash my hands,” she said. “I just leave it and go about my work and eat my food like this.”
Although Saritha, 34, would have really have liked to be a teacher, she has spent the last 12 years working in garment factories in the city.
“I work in garments because I have to earn a livelihood,” Sarita said. “I don’t like the work at all.”
She earns Rs 9,200 per month but wants her salary to be raised to at least Rs 18,000. That, she said, would go a long way in helping her pay her children’s school fees, her family’s medical bills and the rent.
Garment workers led by labour activists and trade unions have approached the Karnataka state government several times asking for a raise in the mandated minimum wage for skilled and unskilled workers in the sector. Despite promises made by various governments led by different political parties, the wages have remained largely static.
‘Women are ignored’
Bengaluru’s garment industry employs about 3.5 lakh workers, according to government estimates. The Garment Labour Union says this number is closer to 6 lakh and that about 90% are women.
Saritha thinks that this is one reason why the government gets away with ignoring their requests.
“Women are caught up in looking after the home, children and husbands,” she said. “We remain in that circle. We don’t have that much knowledge or read about what the government is doing. So whatever money comes in as salary, the attitude is ‘Ok, something has come.’ The concern is about how to make that money last for that week or that month.”
Men, by contrast, have more time and inclination to discuss issues and work on solutions, she maintained.
“It is possible that if there were more men in the garment sector making demands, the government would pay more attention,” she said. “Only once in a while, like during the PF [provident fund] strike, women workers make the government sit up and take notice, but that happens very rarely.”
Saritha was talking about a massive protest in April 2016 by more than a lakh workers against the union government’s decision to block workers from withdrawing from their Employment Provident Fund accounts until they turn 58. The protest forced the government to go back on its decision.
“There are some 10 lakh people working in the garment sector here,” added Saritha, referring to workers and everyone associated with the garment industry in Bengaluru. “It has not occurred to them how important 10 lakh people should be to them.”
Saritha dreads her job because of what she calls “production torture”. Tailors are given near impossible targets. One day in March, she had to stitch the lower seams of between 40 to 50 jerseys every hour. “When factory managements set these targets, they time how long it takes to finish stitching a section and then calculate how many such sections can be stitched in an hour,” she said. “They forget the time taken to pick up the garment, to position it below the needle, cut the thread and so on.”
When tailors fail to meet their targets, their supervisors chide or shame them.
“There’s hardly any time to drink water, go to the bathroom or stretch your legs,” said Saritha. She has recently developed a pain in her right side, which a doctor has told her is a result of her sitting in one position in front of a sewing machine for long hours.
One day in late March, Saritha had to rush back home after work because she had left clothes to soak before she got around to washing them. Like many working Indian women, she spends her hours at home cooking, cleaning and washing.
She then waited till 11 pm to visit a local private clinic open at night for another check up for the pain in her side. Although she is entitled to subsidised healthcare under the Employees State Insurance scheme, the dispensaries that provide this service are open only during the day when she has to work. Even if she takes a day off, she may not be able to see the doctor at the dispensary that is always overcrowded. As a result, she ends up paying much more at the private clinic – Rs 1,000 for a consultation.
Lack of support
Saritha’s husband is an accountant at a cement factory and makes Rs 12,000 a month. The couple struggles to make ends meet. Barring rice rations for Rs 2 per kg under the Anna Bhagya scheme started by the previous Congress government, they get no state support.
Both their families live in Mandya district, 100 km south of Bengaluru. They own agricultural land but the couple does not get a share of the produce. The families disapprove of their intercaste marriage. Saritha’s family is from a backward caste while her husband’s family is from a Dalit community listed as Scheduled Caste.
Saritha is a registered voter in Mandya. The main electoral contest in the constituency is between Nikhil Gowda, the son of Karnataka Chief Minister HD Kumaraswamy, who is contesting on a Janata Dal (Secular) ticket, and Sumalatha Ambareesh, a former actor in Malayalam films who married Kannada actor Ambareesh. A three-time Member of Parliament from the same constituency, Ambareesh died in 2018. His wife is standing as an independent candidate but has the support of the BJP.
Saritha has no preference between the two but thinks Sumalatha might win.
“I can’t think of any political leader in Mandya who has done good work for the people,” she said. “The people who come to power give to people who already have. The condition of poor people is that they work hard and then they die.”
As of now, Saritha plans to go to Mandya on April 18 to cast her vote but is not sure whether her factory management will give her the day off, even though she is entitled under state law to paid leave on election day.
“If someone steps up and says that they will help garment workers, I will support them no matter what party they are from,” said Saritha. “That is the only thing I want from politicians.”
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