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, Nayantara Narayanan and Priyali Prakash 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.

Saira Bano, 38, has not had an easy life. She was married at 15 and started working as a daily wage labourer soon after to support her husband, a rickshaw puller. She bore him five children and was left to fend for them on her own when he died a few years ago. She is convinced her circumstances will not improve no matter who comes to power after this parliamentary election. “No leader in this country cares about us,” she said. “The poor have never been looked after and that is not going to change.”

Bano, who lives at IIM Road in Lucknow City, will nonetheless vote on May 6. She has voted in every Parliament and Assembly election since she became eligible, and does not plan to stop now.

“I have always voted for Mayawati and I always will,” Bano said, referring to the Bahujan Samaj Party supremo who is contesting the election in alliance with the Samajwadi Party.

Why Mayawati? For one, she is the only leader who can keep communal tensions in check, Bano argued. “No other leader or party has been as selfless as her. People say she is corrupt, but at least she does not differentiate between us based on religion or caste in whatever work she does.”

Not that she does not have any complaints at all against Mayawati. “I used to live in Hazratganj. One morning a bulldozer came and started razing our homes,” Bano said, recalling the demolition of a slum cluster when Mayawati was the chief minister nearly 17 years ago. “Thankfully, we were sleeping outside, under a tree. We lost everything.”

The slum demolition had sparked an outcry from the public as well as Opposition leaders, including then Congress chief Sonia Gandhi, forcing Mayawati to promise new housing and compensation to the affected people. While some of them did eventually get new housing – two-bedroom flats at IIM Road, 14 km away – around a decade ago, it lacked provision for electricity. The promise of compensation remains unfulfilled.

Saira Bano at a construction site in Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh. Photo credit: Priyali Prakash
Saira Bano at a construction site in Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh. Photo credit: Priyali Prakash

‘Finding work is tough’

Most days, Bano said, it is a struggle to find work. “Contractors do not employ women in construction work easily unless you know people,” she explained. “Finding work is tough.”

Generally, though, it has become easier for women to work since she started working over two decades ago, Bano said. As for herself, she would rather not do hard labour, but she does not have a choice. “Getting to work is not something I fought for,” she said. “I started working to help my husband raise our children. After he passed away, I was left with no choice.”

Her husband was the only brother among four siblings and his parents had already died. Bano’s father is also dead and her three brothers are all daily wage labourers. So, Bano explained, she does not have “a helping hand” to raise her children, aged between seven and 22. “If anyone ever asks me to stop working because I am a woman, I will tell them to feed me and my children,” she said. “Who will take their responsibility if I stop working? Who will feed them?”

After a day of hard labour, Bano has to cook food for herself and her children. Some evenings, before going to bed, she manages to catch the news on an old television set in her home. Those evenings are rare, however. She is usually too tired to stay up.

Bano claimed she has never received any welfare benefits, save for subsidised food grains under the Public Distribution System. She was looking to get a cooking gas cylinder under the Narendra Modi government’s Ujjwala scheme, but she did not meet the condition of having a functional bank account.

“Whatever I earn, I use it to feed my children. I have never had enough money to save so I never thought about visiting a bank,” she explained.

Some officials once visited her neighbourhood to enroll residents for “Modi ji’s bank account scheme”, she recalled, referring to the Jan Dhan Yojana. “I think I deposited Rs 110, but I never got a chance to withdraw it or add to the account.”

Bano does not even know which bank her money was deposited in. “I always wanted to educate my children, but I could not send any of them to school,” she rued. “I have only ever had enough money to feed them.”

She complained that far from helping India’s poor, the Modi government hurt them by banning Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 currency notes in November 2016. “People who had black money bought cars, built houses,” she said, referring to one of the stated aims of demonetisation, to eradicate black money. “And people like us were worried about police raids, even though we had nothing. How was it a good decision?”

She herself faced problems, Bano said, although they paled in comparison to what many people had to go through. “I heard a lot of people were in trouble, there was even news about some people dying,” she explained. “My main problem was that some of our contractors had Rs 500 notes to pay us, and because our wage at that time was around Rs 250, it was difficult for them to pay us on some days.”

Read more in the series:

A weaver in Telangana who will vote for the first time says that no government has helped her family

A businesswoman in Mumbai wants Modi back because he is a ‘powerful person’

A Telangana farmer wants to protect her land, but will vote for the party her village picks

This shop owner in Hyderabad is voting for BJP – even though her business has fallen

A Muslim woman in Godhra says she’s proud that a man from her state is prime minister

A Bengaluru garment worker says politicians ignore the sector since it employs women

An anganwadi helper in Tamil Nadu wants someone to fulfill Jayalalithaa’s promises

A sarpanch in Gujarat credits her husband and Modi for development in her village

A prohibition activist in North Karnataka is urging women to vote NOTA

For an Udaipur women’s collective, Modi’s done good – and they want more

In Bhanwari Devi’s Rajasthan village, young women want water and a better hospital

Half the Vote: A sanitation worker in northern Rajasthan believes Modi has stolen food off her plate