No Kothri For Kothli

Drudge labourers are paid the same amount their forefathers were paid two-and-half millennia ago! Is the media taking note?

The worker-management confrontation at the Manesar plant of Maruti Suzuki resurfaced and took a violent turn last Wednesday (July 18, 2012). For our papers and news channels, it’s a news item, and may be a one-off sideshow of the manufacturing roll-out of “enterprising” India. For a major section of mainstream media, it ends at that. Analysis, panel discussions, talk shows, op-eds and edits are on far more “growth oriented” issues. To talk of skewed labour-capital relations is for old-fashioned Marxist pigs (of Orwellian ‘Animal Farm’) and somehow doesn’t fit in the mainstream media narrative. Corporate media, enchanted by the pink bubble gum of market growth model is colourblind to the dark shades of a word, exploitation. In days to come, check for yourself the column inches and the air-time the story gets in the mainstream media.

And if mainstream media is oblivious about something called ‘labour’, what can you expect from mainstream cinema dealing with a theme with undercurrents of proletarian de-humanisation? Nothing. You just expect the cliché-filled Gangs of Wasseypur which skims over the banal subtext of not-so-dramatic coal mine workers, and indulges in the masala narrative of gun-toting oversexed ganglords for the consumption of cineplexes in metropolis India.

But, Maruti Suzuki workers are still the privileged ones (in a cruel irony of the word) as they constitute the exclusive seven per cent of workers who work in the organised sector. Fiercer are the everyday battles with life for the workers who constitute 93 per cent of work force in the unorganised sector. And they could be your house help to anyone working in a brick kiln, or a mother of two children multitasking as a home maid as well as a brick kiln worker. So what about Kothli?

Not far away from Dhanbad, which seems to have caught the nation’s cinematic imagination with all stereotypes packaged as ‘new age’ film-making, Kothli works as a brick kiln worker as well as a domestic help, and is mother to two small kids. A day in the life of Kothli could be as banal as this, as she survives one more battle in Giridih district in Jharkhand (about 155 kms from the state capital, Ranchi).

She was sitting third to the window on the backseat of the 12-seater trekker (from Hindustan Motors) a public transport vehicle, which still could be found in these parts of the country. But then 12 is too normal a capacity, which could not be the norm. The conductor was trying hard to get every inch occupied and had managed to push the capacity to 21. She was chatting with a woman who worked with her at the brick kiln. The tone had been set for a long conversation beyond the short trekker journey. After getting down from the 21-seater tinbox luxury, they had to walk four kilometres to reach the kiln. I had asked her to take me to the kiln.

I knew her from the days when she was a fruit-seller, one of the many things that she had tried and left in the last seven months. Today she spotted me in the market of Giridih, a sleepy district town in Jharkhand and told me about her latest ‘multi-tasking’ occupations – working in the morning as a maid for a Marwari family in the town and then working the next ten hours in a brick kiln, 13 kms away from town, and about 18 kms from her village… and yes, taking care of her two-year-old son. Kothli was 27 (her voter ID said so) and her husband was working as a security guard in a shopping complex in Mumbai. He had not come home for the last eight months.

Walking to the kiln, Kothli was curious to know why I wanted to visit the kiln. I just said I wanted to see how it works and watch people working there. Her co-worker, Mansi, found it a very funny reason to visit a dusty place. As the women started laughing, I felt a bit embarrassed and started walking a few steps away from them.

As we reached the brick kiln, they suggested I have tea and food in a dhaba opposite the kiln and added, with their usual laugh, to watch the kiln and kiln people from there. I did that only.

Within minutes, Kothli and Mansi merged with a number of women and men, giving shape to the clay before it was baked as brick in the kiln. Some of them were also loading and dumping the mud while others were busy in the ‘brick bakery’ – kiln. The labour contractor was keeping an eye on the hands he had managed to rope in for the kiln. On an April afternoon, it did not take much time before the bodies of the workers started shining with sweat under the scorching  sun.

Kothli’s child, along with the little children of the mothers working there, were placed on two khatias in a corner of the kiln. A young girl, daughter of one of the workers, was keeping a watch on them…sometimes calling the mothers whose children became ‘uncontrollable’.

As the work absorbed them with all its banal regularity, the women had little care for the world around except the worry for their children. Their hair got unlocked and unruly, the bra straps were popping out from the edges of their sweat- drenched blouses. For those who had the leisure of bourgeois aesthetics, it had a subtle and unstated beauty about it. The grace of feminine radiance and glow of a toiling woman’s defiance. The stubborn bindi on the forehead was holding its ground despite the sweat deluge and constant wiping of the face.

Kothli doesn’t know what minimum wages norms are, nor does she think it’s even meaningful to find out. As the day ends, she walks away with the 18 rupees that she got. And to expect that she is aware of fancy phrases called ‘maternity benefits’ and ‘maternity leave’? All she is concerned with is how the Marwari malkin (for whom she works as a maid) is going to yell at her for getting so dirty after the brick kiln work.

Kothli reminds you about a stark historical continuity that was pointed out by the great historian, DD Kosambi (let alone organised, this continuity is state-ordained). Two thousand five hundred years ago, Arthashashtra noted that the lowest annual wage paid by the state was sixty pannas (one panna was a silver coin of 3.5 gram standard) for menial and drudge labour. That means that minimum wage was set at 210 grams of silver, which was “almost exactly what was paid to the lowest Indian labour by the East India Company in the early eighteenth century”. As the brilliant scholar of the region, Dr Arvind N Das, wrote, “Even at today’s prevailing price of silver, it can be calculated that drudge labour are paid almost same amount in money, which their forefathers were paid in silver two-and-half millennia ago!”

So in a “dynamically changing India”, is the media taking note of this status quo, or is the exploitative connotation of ‘the more things change, the more they remain the same’ too difficult to sell? In times when the media have themselves joined the chorus of market fundamentalism, the plight of the toiling masses could be a jarring note for its target audience – the upwardly mobile class with the purchasing power (the blue-eyed class courted by advertisers). Labour concerns have to be shouted down, because it can easily be the most disturbing cacophony, something that can expose the feet of clay of the “‘growth story”. If you don’t believe this, watch out for Kothlis in the media narrative, and yes, measure the column space for the Maruti workers’ stir. You’ll figure it out yourself.


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