Once he was done refilling the fuel tank of his two-wheeler, a customer at the newly opened gas station in Chanchalguda, Hyderabad, demanded a bill. The problem was, he wanted to be billed for an inflated amount, so he could claim greater travel expenses from his employer.
“Why are you making such a big deal about this?” the customer asked the woman at the billing counter, as she stared at him, refusing to budge.
The man continued to shout. He was holding up a queue. Unobserved, a policewoman appeared at the spot.
The woman at the counter, Raziya Sultana*, greeted the officer with a familiar nod.
“Take the bill or kindly leave,” said Basheera Begum, the superintendent of Special Prison for Women in Chanchalguda, to the customer. Her voice had the firmness of someone accustomed to dealing with delinquency.
“Anyone who tries to mess with our women will be dealt with strongly,” she announced to the queue. “What they did and why they did is a thing of past. They have served the prison sentence for it. The real reformation starts once they have been released and we are here to make it easy for them.”
Sultana and 24 other women – a mixed group of former prison inmates and undertrials – have been working at Chanchalguda’s women-only petrol station since June 23. An initiative of the Prisons and Correctional Services of Telangana state, the station is an attempt to provide employment to as many women undertrials and former prisoners as possible.
For now, two police constables and a sub-inspector have been posted at the petrol pump for security.
“Most customers behave well,” said J Hanumantha, one of the two constables. “But, once in a while, someone tries to engage unnecessarily. Our job is to intervene and ensure that nobody talks to the women in a derogatory manner.”
The next customer at the billing queue, fascinated by all that he had witnessed, tried to make small talk with Sultana. As he simpered about the value of good deeds and hard work, Sultana cut him short and asked, “Kitne ka dalun?” How much petrol do you need?
Sultana completed her prison sentence at the beginning of 2016. In the past year, she has suffered enough well-meaning people trying to sermonise on the value of honesty, telling her how to lead the rest of her life. She already knows this – she has no intention of being “stuck to the past”, as people never tire of repeating.
Sultana, her younger brother and mother were convicted in a dowry harassment case. She served a total of five-and-a-half years in jail, 13 months out of which were in Chanchalguda prison and the rest in a district prison. Sometime during the sentence, Sultana’s husband left her – she said it was because he paid too much attention to what people said.
In prison, she learnt to bake, sew and weave. Once her sentence was over, Sultana also received a sewing machine from the prison authorities. But there was never enough work to pay the bills.
“Prior to this, I was tailoring from home, but I can still say that this is the most well-paying and respectable job I have ever had,” Sultana said, as she took a break from the billing counter. “My mother and youngest son are happy because we can lead a peaceful life. One day, my husband and other children will come back too.”
Sultana has the plans and anxieties of any single mother. “I plan to shift my youngest son to Hyderabad and enrol him in a good school,” she said. “I will have to start saving soon for emergencies. If my other two children come back, I will have to plan something for them also. I will stay in Hyderabad and go to my village once a month.”
Five of the women working at the petrol pump are from different districts of Telangana and are currently living in a temporary accommodation provided by the Department of Prisons.
“We are trying to find affordable accommodation for the women,” Begum said. “The stigma against former prisoners reveals itself in several forms. But the thing that affects them the most is when people deny them jobs or homes.”
Bindu*, a resident of Hyderabad, was convicted with her son for a case of acid attack, for which they served a sentence of six years each. Once she came out of prison, she wanted to get a job to support her family of seven, perhaps shift them to a larger house in a different neighbourhood. Bindu is too old to stand for long hours, but she and another former inmate work at the products counter at the petrol station, which is also run by the Chanchalguda prison.
“I have a chair to sit on when there is no customer at the counter,” Bindu said. “My job is to deposit money from all the sales at end of the day, maintain an account of the products sold, and get the invoice signed by the officer every day. I can read and write Hindi, so it is an easy job.”
Unlike some of the others, Bindu did not have to worry about educating her children, but she needed the money because “old age brings ailments”.
Women who have served their term at prison appear relatively more relaxed compared to the undertrials, who tread more carefully.
“First money, then petrol sir,” Bhagyashree insisted, as she spoke to a customer. That’s what the officers had taught her to say, and she was going to stick to the rules. Born in Hyderabad’s Dhoolpet area, Bhayashree is an undertrial and had spent only two days in prison. Her husband had died of cancer over a decade ago and since then, she had raised her three daughters by producing and selling Gudumba or illicit liquor.
“After the crackdown on Gudumba, I continued selling it illegally and was arrested,” she said. “Most of my caste members either sold Gudumba or made Ganesh idols. I never learned how to make idols, and I can’t take up other work in the area I live in because women are allowed to do only certain kind of jobs.”
Bhagyashree said she eventually wants to have a different life – but only once her youngest daughter completes her graduation. For now, the job at the gas station helps pay her bills and the legal fee to fight her ongoing case.
Planning for a future
The women working at the petrol pump make Rs 12,000 a month and if things work according to the way the prison’s authorities have planned, the women will soon have a provident fund account too.
“Most of those who end up at prisons are already victims of circumstances,” said VK Singh, director general of prisons and correctional services, Telangana. “The system shouldn’t work in a way to isolate them and their families even more. There needs to be some way to end the chain of events in the lives of these people. There should be a better nurturing environment for the future generations of these families and employment is one way to provide it.”
Singh is awaiting government permission to provide more job opportunities – to former prisoners (more of whom are queuing up outside his office every day), undertrials and even those currently serving time. A prison for men near Chanchalguda regularly allows male prisoners to work outside the prison (under observation) – and Singh hopes this will be possible for the women soon too.
* Names have been changed to protect identity.