Featured image credits: Joint Women’s Programme
Nithari village is one of thousands of ‘urban villages’ in the industrial suburb of NOIDA (New Okhla Industrial Development Area), just outside India’s national capital, Delhi. Nithari presents a picture of congestion, overflowing sewage, narrow galis (streets in Hindi) and ramshackle, hastily erected tenements. Nevertheless, over the decades Nithari has become home to thousands of marginalised and poor Indians from North India and beyond.
In the popular press – both Indian and foreign – economic liberalisation brought prosperity to the country and expanded opportunities for the poor. However, the underbelly of this growth has been devastating especially for those who were suddenly defined as ‘unskilled’. Women form a huge section of the category of the especially vulnerable, ‘unskilled’ poor in a phenomenon termed the ‘feminisation of poverty’ by economists.
Often illiterate, jobs like babysitting; elder care; and employment in hospitals and factories, which were previously open to them, are now denied under the modern, ‘corporate’ organisation of labour.
Therefore, urban migration for women is different from the experiences of men who are generally literate and have a higher bargaining status. Migrant women find themselves caught in a vicious cycle of low wages and a sudden decline in status compared to their lives in the village. In Nithari, the Joint Women’s Programme – an autonomous women’s organisation established in 1977 – reports that despite their lower status, migrant women have become the primary breadwinners of their families. This is either due to destitution; domestic violence; or because their male partners are afflicted with physical and mental health issues. However, persistent cultural factors in these communities simply don’t acknowledge the reality of women as workers. Due to these long-term factors, the effects of the 2020-22 COVID-19 pandemic have been especially devastating in Nithari. Padmini Kumar of the JWP shared some examples of migrant women’s distress during the pandemic:
A migrant labourer from Bihar, Rani was stranded in Nithari with her children. Her husband had gone to another district in search of work and lost contact with the family. With no money in hand Rani would stand in front of the gate of the emergency food ration service organised in the school run by JWP. One of the teachers asked her if she was looking for someone. She started crying and confessed that she and her children had not eaten for three days. They did not have a phone to contact anyone in their village and were staying under a stolen old polythene banner to protect themselves from the hot sun. JWP continued to give her food till the end of lockdown but lost touch with her post-pandemic.
Omvati was working as a construction labourer along with her son after her husband had died due to a workplace accident. The contractor paid them a small token amount to cremate the body. With grief weighing them down they preferred to go back to their village. But the sudden lockdown had left them with debts and the contractor refused to give them their earlier payments. The single room they had rented needed to be cleared of dues. They were left locked inside the work site, with very little to eat and with no access to a clean toilet. After four days when they ran out of groceries, they started waving their clothes to try to catch the attention of passers-by but due to the lockdown there was hardly anyone in the vicinity. Out of hunger and exhaustion they were found semi-conscious by one of JWP’s community workers. Emergency first aid was given and they were taken to hospital. It was ensured that they were given food every day until the end of the lockdown. Later the JWP volunteers met the contractor to redeem a major part of their wage dues and the family was sent home as per their own wishes.
There are many such stories in Nithari, like the ones shared above. The COVID-19 pandemic and the ongoing economic fallout of it in India has elevated the ordinary marginalisation of migrant women in Indian cities to widespread destitution. This is a silent crisis that has not received the kind of attention from the government and the media that it needs.
In Nithari, migrant women are in danger of losing what little they had before the pandemic; and yet they remain the fragile pillars, on which their children and others depend. Without sustained intervention by the state, these women will become one of the long-term casualties of the pandemic, without even the formal acknowledgment accorded to other victims. Gendered violence takes many forms; Nithari’s women experience it not only directly, but also in its most insidious form through the uncaring patriarchal state.
Sunalini Kumar is Associate Professor at the School of Global Affairs, Dr B R Ambedkar University Delhi. She was educated at Delhi University, JNU and Cambridge University. She has previously been Visiting Fellow at CSDS, Delhi and Fulbright Nehru Postdoctoral Fellow at MESAAS, Columbia University.
Sunalini’s research interests centre around urban and regional politics; gender and political theory; and the global south. Her publications are included in Critical Studies in Politics: Sites, Selves, Power (Delhi, Orient Blackswan 2013) and Urbanising Citizenship (Delhi, London and Thousand Oaks, Sage 2013). She is a contributing member of the widely read blog http://www.kafila.org.