It’s nine in the morning. These young women are getting ready under tiny tent-like structures called addas. Their houses are a stone’s throw away. On National Highway 11, that passes through Rajasthan’s Bharatpur district, these women start work as early as 8-8.30 am. As they apply make-up and eyeliner in order to woo their prospective clients, SUVs make several rounds. A couple of them take a U-turn from the flyover at Malaah village of Bharatpur.
These SUVs have flags of political parties—of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the Congress, of independent candidates. The loudspeakers installed make rhetorical appeals for votes. But none of them stop by, even for a second, at the houses of these women. For these women of the Bedia community, the elections mean only one thing to them: “We vote because we want to save our identity.”
Bedia is a Denotified Tribe in which the responsibility of earning falls mainly on the female members of the family. The girls in this community are given a choice to choose between work and household work. Sex work is their traditional job—for those who choose it. In Bharatpur, they live in a couple of small pockets.
“Agar hum vote nahi karenge to humara naam list se kaat jaega. Isliye vote dalte hain (If we don’t vote our names will get deleted from the voting list. Hence, we have to vote),” says Reshma. Newslaundry asked why it’s important to them to get their voter IDs made. She replies categorically, “Pehchan ke liye, ID proof ke liye (To get an identity proof).”
A few kilometres away, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is set to address a rally in support of the BJP candidates. However, for these women, the PM’s rally carries almost no importance. In fact, Reshma and her friends didn’t know that Modi would be in Bharatpur in a few hours. “We have seen him on TV and mobile phone,” Reshma says. “What will we do by attending the rally? None of these leaders have worked for us.”
Like any other voter group, these young Bedia women too have their grievances—very basic ones. This cluster of six families lives right next to the Malaah village flyover, named Panchi Ka Nagla. Each family has 35-50 members, says 33-year-old Shashi Kapoor. He belongs to the Bedia community and works as a daily wage worker.
The young Bedia women spend their days in the addas wooing their clients. Right next to the addas is a three-room house—in which curtains serve as doors—and that’s where Neelu and her associates take their clients. They charge ₹320 per client. Behind and beside the houses are waterlogged fields, some of which have turned green. Geeta (name changed), 25, says, “There is no sewage facility here. Mosquitoes breed in this water.” They understand the threats posed by these fields and expect their public representatives to address these issues. Geeta said, “In the last election [local body polls] the candidates’ representatives had promised that after the polls, this problem will be taken care off.”
Clearly, that day never came.
These young women, who had voted in the 2013 assembly elections, 2014 general election and local body polls, can barely identify the differences between these polls and the candidates who are fighting for it.
The only way they differentiate between one election and another is through the benefits offered to them during the polls. Neelu’s older sister, 28-year-old Manisha spells out the difference between them. “Ye bada chunav hai. Isme fayda nahi hota hai. Wo chhotte chunav [local body polls] mein neta log fayda karte hain—khana, daaru ye sab (These are big polls, voters don’t get much benefit out of it. In the local body polls, Netas distribute food and alcohol,)” she says. On this reference, Neelu’s associates Champa and Geeta giggle.
Geeta says even money is distributed in local body polls. Newslaundry asked if this money influences their voting choice, to which Geeta replies, “We don’t take anyone’s money like that. Hum sabko thoda thoda vote kar denge—kamaal, Hanth, ye sabko (We will vote for everyone—BJP, Congress and others).”
Champa adds, “Even if you plan to contest the polls, we will vote for you too. Why don’t you tell us whom to vote for?”
The male members from the community say campaigners from each party would pay just one visit to seek their votes—usually right before voting day. This is unlike other areas where leaders and political party workers are frequent visitors once campaigning kicks off. “This year, no one has approached us yet,” Manisha says. Unlike her sister Neelu, Manisha is married and takes care of the household chores. “The electricity bills have become a problem for us. I have paid ₹20,000-25,000 as power bills. How much can one spend from a limited income?” However, she is sure that this too will not feature in anyone’s poll promises.
For Geeta, as a voter, her priority list is clear. A proper sewage facility in this Bedia settlement community “aur in Kamron mein light lag jaye, (electrification of these room [where they work])” is all that she wants from the leaders in the election. “Ye Seher nahi hai. Hum itna nahi kamate ki ghar aur idhar dono jagah light lagwa paen (As this not a big city, we don’t earn a lot. Hence, we can’t afford to get electricity in these rooms, where we work, as well.)”
When asked about which leaders they know and prefer, Reshma tries to recall the names of Modi and Raje and Gehlot. Neelu, Champa and Geeta talk about Modi and Rahul Gandhi: Modi because they voted for him in 2014 and the Gandhi scion because they have seen him on the Internet. Notably, with Modi’s reference, they list out a complaint which they all take seriously.
“We won’t vote for Modi,” Manisha says, while the others agree. “Because of him, we had to suffer a lot. In the days, he banned the notes we could hardly earn anything.” Apparently, the note ban not only hurt the farming and business sector; it also brought the Bedia women’s business to a screeching halt. They said when people hardly had any cash left in their hands, how would one manage to pay for sex?
Neelu says, “We were early barely ₹500 a day in place of ₹2,000-₹2,500. We can’t forget those losses caused [by demonetisation].”
This isn’t their only issue. The constant police raids scare them too, says Geeta. “Two Bedia girls, while trying to flee, had died during a police raid. Even though the police reduced harassing us after that incident, we want to get rid of this constant threat.” She says many women from the settlement, including their married women and men, were picked up by the police under the section of human trafficking. They emphasise that it’s their wish to stay in this profession, so how can the police press charges of trafficking?
For many young Bedia women, such raids bring fear, death and even birth. Neelu is mother to a three-year-old daughter. She was born in a Nari Niketan, a shelter for women facing harassment. “They didn’t let me go even when I was pregnant. I gave birth to my first and only girl child inside Nari Niketan. I was allowed to step out only three months after delivery.”
Yet these women refuse to leave their traditional profession. When asked what they would do if Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje or any other women leader offered them a job and an opportunity to restart life a fresh, women like Reshma reject the idea on face value. “I am good with my life. I am more liberated, work as per my convenience and wish.” Her expression clearly ridiculed this idea of “a new life”.
Geeta however asks what the alternatives would be, and then says, “The things you’re talking about—silai–bunai and handloom—I am good at everything. All of us are. But we don’t wish to do it. Now tell me about your other alternatives.” Neelu adds that she finds her life to be better when compared to her sister Manisha’s married life.
An SUV stops at Neelu’s adda. The white Scorpio has three policemen and two other men in civilian dress, either local political workers or government officials on duty. For a moment, there’s confusion in the air. Geeta finally explains that they are clients and bids this correspondent adieu.
While young Bedia men find it difficult to get jobs, women members like Geeta earn much more than the men can ever imagine. Notably, women who have chosen a married life live under parda. In these households, working Bedia women have more rights than men when it comes to financial affairs. “It’s them who decides what to buy and what not to,” Vijendra Kumar, 45, says. His 27-year-old younger brother Manoj Kumar Singh adds, “They are the ones earning, so obviously they will have the deciding power. Even what brands of products we use—if there is dispute—their choices will be supreme.”
Newslaundry asked who decides the voting pattern and whom to vote for. Both Manoj and Vijendra respond, “These are men affairs. How will they understand things about voting and politics? It’s the men who take the call.”