15 Months of Pandemic and Women Mess Workers of IIT Kanpur

Hamara Manch update: June 2021

It has been 15 months since the Institute and the entire country went into the first lockdown.There have been two waves of the virus and most of us witnessed extreme health contingencies, both personal and among relatives, close friends, and the community. The ferocity of the pandemic has taken a serious toll on all of us, and it would take a long while to get over it. Those of us who have been lucky to survive these catastrophic times know how much we owe it to the various kinds of essential workers who have been providing tireless services at great personal peril in the campus. They include sanitation workers, horticulture workers, shopworkers and the ubiquitous SIS workers. And yet we as a community seem to have fallen short in ensuring that these workers too have access to a dignified existence. Several harsh measures taken during these months including arbitrary and humiliating firing of over 50 SIS guards, some of them the most senior in the service, slashing of wages of several workers, etc. But other than these set of workers there are several other workers who lost their livelihood because the Institute has not been fully functional for these months – they include the mess workers, the canteen workers, the shopkeepers and their employees, mobile vendors, drivers, etc.

Hamara Manch has been trying to bring out short reports on their situation to the community, and we would continue to do so.

The present report tries to capture the situation of one of the most vulnerable section of workers of the Institute whose voices are so muffled that they rarely get the attention they deserve – the women workers of Hall messes in IIT Kanpur. There are 74 women mess workers spread across the halls. The primary task of these workers is to sift and clean grains and pulses which are cooked in the Halls. The task is extremely tedious and requires the workers to sit in awkward position for long hours to ensure that no inedible stuff get cooked in the meals. And the significance of this task was evident during the meal preparations of quarantine students when they deployed inadequate number of workers. The workers tried to do the best but there were regular complaints from the students. Other than this they are expected to help out in every activity in the kitchen including rolling out rotis/parathas, cutting vegetables, peeling potatoes and even cleaning vessels.

The following report is based on the notes of sessions where 32 women workers shared their situation with each other and us. We at Hamara Manch knew things were extremely difficult but these sessions made us realise how dire it actually is. Each of their accounts probably deserve a full report but we are attempting to present a summary of their current situation.

Domestic Context of Women Workers

  • As has been mentioned in an earlier report(https://nirvaakiitk.wordpress.com/2020/08/03/workersiitk-amidst-the-covid-lockdown-2/ ), these women workers are the primary earners if not the sole earner of their families. Most of them have got their employment on compassionate grounds and have had to step out of their domestic arena under great duress. They have been managing the expenses of their families with great difficulty even earlier but without this regular income their families have been pushed to the brink of survival.
  • Most of the women workers are in their middle-ages and have extended families to support. Families consist of 5 to 10 members which include married and unmarried sons, daughters in law, daughters, elderly parents and children/grandchildren.
  • Many of these women are widows or who have been rendered single because their spouses have left them. For several others the husbands are unable to earn anything because of long-term illnesses. Significantly several of the husbands used to be manual labourers earlier but the harsh work seems to have rendered permanent damage to their bodies making them unfit for it. And they have not been able to find any other work either.
  • Some of the adult and semi-adult children of the household had been contributing to the family income earlier – mostly as domestic help and manual labourers; but they too have lost their employment during the pandemic.
  • The present crisis has further exacerbated the situation because even families which had gone nuclear (sons/daughters after marriage) have been forced to return to the common household. Several of them reported that their sons had migrated to other cities but have lost their jobs during the pandemic and are now dependent on her.

Regular Expenses of Families of Women Mess Workers
As one of the workers succinctly put it – “pichle saal do ke jagah ek rupye se kaam chalaya par ab to athanni chawanni par aa gaye” Last year we made do by spending one rupee rather than the usual two but this year we have been reduced to 50-25 paise.

Food
These families could never afford proper nutritional meals even in regular times but now they have been reduced to the state of starvation. Most of them have access to government PDS system which allocates 5 kgs of grain per family member – in some places the ration shop shaves off 1 kg of the allocated grain. But some of these families have their ration card in their village and they do not have access to this life-saving sustenance too. This is not even enough to cover all the meals of the day and for everything else they need to shell out money– pulses, oil, vegetables, fruits, milk, fuel. And hence most of these essentials have almost completely disappeared from the meals including for children. As several of them said “we cook once a day and try to fend hunger for all the meals”.

Education

  • For school going children classes are happening online and almost without exception none of the families have been able to pay the fees.
  • Students in class XII, whose exams have been waived recently, have been threatened by the school that if they do not pay up their dues they would not issue them certificate.
  • All tutions have stopped.
  • Children in higher studies have had to discontinue their courses. Several of these women workers have taken hefty loans to pay up their arrear fees and yet the institutions are not allowing their wards to continue because more fees are due. Meanwhile the interests are piling up. One of the worker’s daughter managed to pay her fees for MBA by taking Rs 40,000/- loan. But there has been no classes and she is aware that there are no jobs either.

Rent

  • Many of these workers have their own accommodation but have to pay electricity charges.
  • Several of them said that their houses need urgent repairs, but they have not been able to afford it and it is unlikely they would be able to do so in the near future. Rains have made things worse – several of them said their homes are leaking.
  • Rents range from Rs 1500 to Rs 4000/-. Some of the workers have been forced to leave because they could not sustain these rents.

Health expenses and contingencies

Health contingencies have been the most difficult to handle during these distressed times. But unlike what we had expected it was not due to Corona – none of the families got tested for Covid even if they had all the classic symptoms. We realised that only a health crisis compels the family to seek any medical attention, lesser and what is termed ‘seasonal’ ailment is usually ignored and allowed to pass on its own. Most of these women reported that their entire families were down with flue like symptoms and unlike other years it lasted for much longer and many still had lingering cough and weakness. But almost none of them consulted a doctor, in some cases they visited the neighbouring chemist, and he gave some paracetamol and such like. These women workers also routinely disregard serious underlying conditions like anaemia, blood pressure, blood sugar, urinary tract infection and various kinds of menstrual and gynaecological ailments. Many of them mentioned them in passing and that they have been forced to discontinue their medication for months, because other expenses were more important. Even families with chronic patients – who have suffered stroke, have neurological and mental conditions, patients with heart ailments, and even cancer patients etc. have either stopped those medication or have been taking them erratically.

Some really stark cases are listed below:

  1. This woman mess worker who must be in her 20s has been reduced to be the only caretaker of her husband, also a mess worker in his early thirties. A couple of years back both his kidneys failed due to gross medical negligence and he has been on dialysis since then. The extended family tried to support the expensive treatment for some months but had to sell off their land and other property for the same. Since the man could not put in much hard work his co-workers got together and convinced the contractor to give employment to his wife who was in the native village. The woman had to shift to Kanpur with two small kids – a toddler and an infant, do duty and also continue the man’s treatment. She is unlettered and has never been outside her village earlier. The dialysis which needs to be done bi-weekly costs Rs 7000/- per week or Rs 30,000 per month, but because of access to ESI the cost used to be covered till March 2020. But since the lockdown her/and her husband’s ESI has been discontinued and hence she has had to pay for the treatment. She somehow managed to carry on till April but all her savings and that of her extended family has been wiped off. The recent lockdown has forced her to let go of the rented accommodation and move back to her village. It is unlikely that she has been able to continue with the dialysis of her husband.
  2. Another worker reported that they incurred a debt of Rs 5 lacs for treatment of the elder brother of the husband. Unfortunately, he did not survive and the family has been forced to pay back the interest of the debt to the local moneylender at 5% per month (Rs 25,000 per month). They have sold off their house to pay the interest while the principal remains. They have not been able to treat their child and the other child’s school is threatening to hold the result if the fees is not paid.
  3. A woman worker with two daughters and one son and husband reported that they have been barely managing earlier with her wages and a small amount her elder daughter got in a private job. Her husband is mentally unstable and has been an addict for several years. Her younger daughter had developed a serious lung infection which took several months to diagnose and a lot of money was spent. She now needs continuous treatment worth Rs 1000 per month (till a few months back it was Rs 3000). Meanwhile her elder daughter also became very unwell and after making rounds of several doctors she has been diagnosed with a liver abscess and infection which is not subsiding despite medication. She can neither afford the doctor’s fees (which used to be earlier Rs 500 but now with video consultation has been raised to Rs 700) nor the medication.
  4. A single mother of two who lost her husband 12 years back and has also been abandoned by her in-laws shared that she is a serious heart patient and has had more than one silent ‘heart attacks’. And yet she has been forced to work as a manual labourer in a construction site during the lockdown. She has not been taking regular medication and keeps passing out suddenly. Her teenage daughter too gets fainting spells – mostly out of anxiety.
  5. A middle aged worker reported that she herself had a paralytic attack in her left leg in December last year. Her treatment has left the family in a serious debt, and she is not sure how they would repay it.
  6. A young worker reported that her son came down with jaundice when he was a toddler and has been sickly since. He seems to contract hepatitis very often and needs almost continuous medical attention. She herself has a severe pain in her leg and needs to take painkillers every day. Her husband has left her, and she is dependent on her parents for survival – they themselves are badly off and she feels guilty to be an extra burden. She has been postponing going to an orthopaedic for herself – but is not sure how long she would be able to bear the constant pain.
  7. Another worker reported that her son had severe pneumonia in his childhood and since then has been having frequent fainting spells making him completely homebound. He needs regular medication. Further he was advised a three-month course of medicine which could have alleviated his condition but the family had to discontinue it mid-way because of lack of resources.

So how have they been Managing?

To put it in a line – they are not being able to manage.

  • The Institute has given them some support – Rs 18400 in three installments over 15 months. That is equivalent to a month and a half of their regular wages.
  • Most of them have got a few days of work when the messes reopened partially from November/December 2020 to April 2021. The number of duties range from 15 days to 60 days though most of them have got at most 30 to 35 days. Shockingly some of these wages have still not been paid to them in Hall 9 and Hall 10.
  • Most of them have exhausted all their savings including that in the EPF account.
  • Some have had to sell off their houses or share of land to tide over contingencies.
  • Unlike some of the male workers, who have found employment as manual labour in constructions sites, factories, metro construction, etc. there is no alternate employment available to these women workers even to partially cover their expenses.
  • To make matters worse the number of dependents on the meagre income of these workers have increased in this period.
  • Some driven by extreme desperation have taken up jobs at ridiculously low wages. We came to know of a single mother who has been working in a nursery (plant) where she puts in 9 hours of hard work per day, including shovelling, digging, watering, etc. She earns Rs 100 a day.
  • Other than that, they have been surviving on the largesse of relatives who themselves have been hard-pressed in these months.
  • Several women shared that men of their families have taken to drinking heavily during these months leading to serious and frequent ugliness.
  • Some of them have taken loans at massive interest rates – 5% to 10% per month.
  • Given the uncertainty of their being able to repay, even moneylenders now refuse to lend them money.

To conclude

These sessions with the women workers were some of the most distressing sessions we have had in Hamara Manch for a long time. Most of these women were extremely reluctant to talk about their personal lives and often refused to share details. And yet even the bare details made us realise the extent of their despair. As we mentioned earlier, each of these women deserve a detailed report on how much indignity and grief they have had to face to survive these months. It has been very difficult for the male workers too, but the travails of the women workers singlehandedly fending for their families is qualitatively worse. One of the workers shared their predicament in these words:

We are extremely ashamed to talk about our misfortune and usually would never
share it with anyone. We know people laugh at us or pity us. Life has been difficult for
us even earlier, but we had thought that our jobs in the mess in the Institute would
enable us to live dignifiedly and take care of our dependents and families. But these
15 months have forced us to let go our last shred of self-respect. We have nothing left
to lose. And we are not sure we can carry on any longer
.

The workers were keen to know if the Institute was likely to reopen soon – as they said, they do not want handouts they want to work and earn their livelihood.


We did not have answers to their questions. But as fellow community members of this Institute it made us wonder whether the hopeless situation of these dignified women were a matter of their shame or for the rest of us?

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