The incident involving the doctor couple in New Delhi arrested after being accused of locking up and starving a 13-year-old maid while vacationing in Thailand is not the first of its kind. It is also unlikely to be the last in India.
Looked at from a linear perspective, the case is a simple one: an inhumane couple thrives on cheap domestic labour, emotionally browbeat an underage maid while physically thrashing her and keeping her underfed. They also keep her locked up when they are away at work or when partying. The couple does not pay her wages and in a world where technology has become an instrument of intrusion, they wire the home in a manner in which the maid’s movements can be tracked when they are not home.
Such uni-dimensional viewing of the case results in equally simplistic conclusions: This case “is a reminder that the exploitation of children is also a symptom of India’s rising wealth, as the country’s growing middle class has created a surging demand for domestic workers, jobs often filled by children.”
This particular couple has been arrested and booked under several laws: the Juvenile Justice Act, Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, Child Labour Prohibition and Regulation Act and various Sections of the IPC. Past experience suggests that the case will remain on the boiler for a while and thereafter fade from public memory when loopholes in law and out of court settlement with the family of the maid will quietly resolve the matter with the local police and the legal apparatus playing the role of mediators – at a price of course.
But what is the problem? For generations, domestic helpers have been the tradition and practise in India. In the feudal era – and even among today’s landed elite – domestic helps have remained within the exploitative structure of the family. Over the past few decades resource scarcity in rural areas forced migration of unskilled poor to urban centres. The easiest job to find were as domestic helps for both girls and women – and odd-jobs like rickshaw pulling and assistants in shops or small eateries for boys and men.
Over the past few decades the unscrupulous community of maid agencies mushroomed in most metropolitan areas. They function under the protective umbrella of local police and feed on the demand for domestic helpers from the urban middle classes who are faced with the breakdown of family support structures. As a result nuclear families find housekeeping difficult along with the ever increasing work pressures.
Twenty years ago most metropolitan areas were a buyers’ market when it came to domestic helpers. But in the past decade this has been transformed into a seller’s market. These fly-by-night agencies charge annual commissions to the tune of 20,000 rupees or more; take away a month’s salary (approximately 3,500 rupees for a ‘semi-trained’ helper). These agencies have no location except a mobile phone and clients live in fear of the help ‘disappearing’ – and in that event they get little assistance from the police.
The arrest of the doctor couple may placate middle class outrage and may be good for the media, but the real solutions lie in smothering the source of evil – the unscrupulous agencies and of course changing the mindset of people to reduce dependence on domestic helpers. How this can be done is a completely different matter.