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.

Growing up in an impoverished Dalit ghetto on the outskirts of northern Rajasthan’s Dausa town, Chanda Beniwal never had a chance to go to school. Like every other girl of her Valmiki caste group, she was trained in two skills: housework and their traditional occupation of safai – sweeping streets, collecting garbage and cleaning toilets.

She was also taught another hard lesson: discrimination would be an inevitable part of her life, and she would simply have to resign herself to it.

For 29 years, Beniwal played by the rules. After marrying into a Valmiki family in the same ghetto, she laboured for her in-laws, husband and four children even on days when her chronic low blood pressure problem caused her to collapse.

At work, while sweeping the town’s streets for nine hours a day, she did not retaliate when people from higher castes spoke rudely, refused to give her a glass of water or called her a “bhangi” – a pejorative term for people of her caste.

In the past year, however, an anger simmering within her community has helped Beniwal find a voice she did not know she had. “Nowadays, when high caste people shout at me or tell me not to sit on a bench with them, I shout back,” said Beniwal, 30. “I tell them, if you are so allergic to us, why did you steal our jobs?”

Beniwal was referring to the Rajasthan government’s state-wide recruitment drive for safai karamcharis or sanitation workers in May 2018, when applicants from several upper caste and Other Backward Class groups were given the majority of the 21,136 available jobs.

In the past, recruitment drives for sanitation workers took place at a much smaller scale, with most applicants from Scheduled Caste groups – Valmikis in particular. When the jobs were handed out, Valmikis were prioritised because of their caste association with the profession.

In the May 2018 drive, however, the state’s former Bharatiya Janata Party government opened up the job lottery to applicants of all castes, based on Supreme Court guidelines for reservations in government jobs. Half the 21,136 available posts were for general category applicants, 21% were for Other Back ward classes, 16% were for Scheduled Castes and 11% were for Scheduled Tribes.

It was meant to be an equalising move, but Valmikis have been left feeling shortchanged.

Only 4,056 people applied for the 10,568 general category posts, and all of them were given jobs. Meanwhile, more than 1.5 lakh people applied for the 3,381 posts reserved for Scheduled Castes. Most of them faced rejection. Valmikis, a minority within the Scheduled Castes, eventually got just a few hundred of the prized government jobs across Rajasthan.

“Most of the jobs went to high caste people who already have one [government] job in the family,” Beniwal said with bitterness. “My people have been kept out of jobs that should have belonged to us.”

Like most women and men in her community, she has now been forced to continue doing sanitation work for a private contractor, who pays her far less than standard government wages.

This situation has pushed women like Beniwal to take an interest in political issues and the ongoing Lok Sabha election – topics that were previously discussed only by the men.

Based on her husband’s assessment, Beniwal blames the Union government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi for their plight. “All these Thakurs, Gujjars, Brahmans and Meenas have applied for safai karamchari jobs only because there is so much unemployment in the country,” she said. “Modi has stolen food from our plates.”

Neeru Valmiki, a sanitation worker in Dausa, is upset that her community is stuck with "dirty work". (Photo credit: Aarefa Johari).

Mounting expenses

When met Beniwal on a hot April afternoon, she was lying on a frayed cot, recuperating from a fresh bout of low blood pressure, while her children and in-laws napped in front of an old, rundown cooler. They were surrounded by bare brick walls, a half-built ceiling and doorways without doors.

“We started renovating our house a few months ago to make room for my brother-in-law and his wife, but now we have no money to finish the work,” said Beniwal. Although her family has never blamed her for the lack of money, Beniwal feels guilty anyway. “My BP [blood pressure] medicines cost almost as much as my income,” she said. “And now I’ve also developed a cataract in my eye. It will need an operation once my BP is under control.”

For Beniwal, her health and the unfinished house are daily reminders of the absence of a secure government job in her family. A government job would have paid at least Rs 12,500 a month, in addition to covering medical costs. Under a private contractor, however, Beniwal does the same sanitation work for Rs 150 a day – barely Rs 4,200 a month – with no sick leave, no medical coverage and wage cuts every time she is absent.

Her family’s financial situation has worsened since last year, when Beniwal and her husband pulled their two sons out of a municipal primary school and admitted them to a private school that charges Rs 10,000 a year as fees.

“We had no choice,” said Beniwal, caressing her son’s head as he slept beside her. “The teachers in the public school had singled out my sons and asked them to clean the gutter. Some other children in our basti stopped going to school when they were called bhangi. But I want my children to study, so we have to bear the costs. A good job would have helped.”

‘We should also be given their jobs’

Beniwal says she would not mind if people of other castes took up sanitation work if it was a two-way street. “If they get our jobs, we should also be given theirs,” she said. “But when does that ever happen?”

This is a common grouse for Valmikis in Dalit ghettos across Dausa and Jaipur. No matter how hard they try, Valmikis claim they are denied all work opportunities that do not involve sweeping or cleaning.

Beniwal’s husband, for instance, describes himself as someone who “works in a local newspaper office”, but his job there involves cleaning the office and its toilet.

In Jaipur’s Purani Basti at the foot of the Nahargarh Fort hills, Minya Devi Lal’s younger son does the same cleaning work in a restaurant. “He tried becoming a waiter or a cook, but they just would not let him,” said Lal, a widow in her 70s.

Lal’s older son died of alcoholism three years ago, and his widow supports their five children by cleaning toilets in a middle-class residential building in Jaipur. “But I am not paid any money for this work,” said Lali Devi, Lal’s daughter-in-law. “The madams give me rotis for my children and sometimes leftover vegetables or rice.”

Minya Devi Lal (left) and her daughter-in-law Lali Devi at their home in Jaipur's Purani Basti. (Photo credit: Aarefa Johari).

Beniwal’s neighbour, Neeru Valmiki, tried to rent a shop space with her husband to open a small grocery store, but they were turned away when the owners heard their surname. “People like us can’t even dream of getting a job that involves sitting in a chair,” said Valmiki. “We are only given ganda kaam [dirty work].”

Beniwal and Neeru Valmiki are angry at upper caste sanitation workers not just because they managed to secure coveted government jobs, but also because they do not often do the work they have been hired for.

“Some of the high caste people sweep the roads, that is all,” said Neeru Valmiki. “They refuse to actually clean toilets or sewers or collect garbage. For that work, they get private contractors who hire us only, at a much lower cost. Then why shouldn’t we directly get those government jobs?”

‘I am still cleaning shit off the streets’

In December 2017, three years after the Union government launched the Swachh Bharat Mission, Jaipur was declared as Rajasthan’s first district to be completely open defecation-free in both rural and urban areas.

Within the next five months, the state government declared all of Rajasthan to be open defecation-free, with claims that over one crore toilets had been built across the state.

In Jaipur’s Purani Basti, however, Minya Devi Lal merely laughed at the mention of the Swachh Bharat Mission. “Yes, the government has built many new public toilets and urinals,” she said. “But I am still cleaning shit off the streets every day, so what more can I say?”

While Lal and other sanitation workers spend their days cleaning the rest of Jaipur, their own segregated Dalit neighbourhoods are full of garbage, muck and overflowing gutters.

“We sweep and pile up the garbage, but the municipality never sends trucks to pick up our trash until we raise a ruckus,” said Lal. “This has always been the case, no matter which government is in power.”

Pigs feed on garbage in the Valmiki neighbourhood in Jaipur's Purani Basti.

In Dausa, Beniwal says it took seven years of repeated appeals before the town authorities built a metalled road leading up to their colony in 2016. “They still have to provide us with a proper water connection,” she said.

Unlike Beniwal and Neeru Valmiki, who had voted for the BJP in the 2014 general election but are no longer sure about Modi, Lal is clear that she will vote for the BJP when northern Rajasthan votes on May 6.

“Modi is a good man, I have heard he attacked Pakistan,” said Lal, referring to Indian Air Force strikes in Pakistan’s Balakot region in February. “All governments have neglected us. But I am sure if we vote for him, Modi will slowly work for our community too.”

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