PUNE, India -- The arrest of an Indian consular official in New York for allegedly underpaying a household servant has hit a nerve in India. Americans, once again, have been arrogant and high-handed. Everyone agrees on that.
But the comments of an Indo-American journalist have incited even more fury. "Time for Indians," he says, "to get over their servant mentality."
The position of servants in India takes some probing for a foreigner to decipher, but after three years I can tell you servants have no rights at all. If they live in, they are at your beck and call at any hour. If they come to work for you daily, they are expected to show up seven days a week. Wages are unregulated, though there is always a going rate that depends on supply and demand in the neighbourhood.
The situation was once the same in the Western World where domestic labour was not regulated by law for a long time. But in India today, certain very large sectors, such as the civil service (both state and central) and the military, have all the modern perks of indexed wages, indexed pensions, health care and weekends off, while those at the bottom are entitled to nothing except a ration card that gives them a break on basic food.
I have never heard anyone in this country (where everyone discusses the news and is up on the latest political scandal) even mention the status of servants. Perhaps that is what a "servant mentality" means. Servants are a non-issue. They come and go on schedule -- the cook, the man who dusts the car, the woman who collects clothes to iron, the sweeper. Day after day, they do their jobs for the same pay, even as inflation hits 11 per cent.
People may be kind to their servants. They may give them tips and gifts and teach them new skills. If servants ask for a day off to visit a doctor or go to a wedding, the answer is usually yes. But kindness is not the same as having rights. Our maid, Devi, comes each day to cook lunch, wash dishes and clean the floors. She is an efficient worker and accomplishes all her tasks for us in two hours. Then she moves on to the three other households for which she works.
Devi is paid by the month, at the going rate, which at the moment, from all four households, would amount to about 7,000 to 9,000 rupees (US$100 to $150), well above the World Bank poverty line of $1.25 a day. The amount she earns allows her to share a small property in a slum with several other family members.
More than 30 per cent of the inhabitants of Pune (and Mumbai and Delhi and many other cities in the developing world) live in slums or "improvised housing." I would not know that by looking out my window. We live on the eighth floor of a block on the southern edge of Pune, and in every direction, tall white towers, similar to ours, pierce the canopy of trees. These modern buildings come in groups called "co-operative housing societies." All have impressive wrought iron gates and watchmen. Over the gates are such names as Green Acres, Oxford Blues and Cloud 9.
This tendency of the middle class to live in gated communities is evident in every Indian city. In a time of high inflation, real estate is a good investment. Other advantages are security and shared services such as generators and tube wells that fill the gaps in municipal services. Condo fees are very low compared to Canada, roughly 2,000 rupees ($40) a month for a two-bedroom in Pune.
Of course, those low condo fees depend on the cheap labour of the 30 per cent who live in improvised housing. Their huts made of corrugated tin are often hidden away at the side of another building or on a construction site.
The amenities of slum houses vary. Devi actually owns her small plot with its own tap and legitimate electrical connection. As long as she can keep working, she will survive. Her life might even improve. But the moment she stops working, that progress will end. For servants there is no safety net, except family.
Faith Johnston is a Winnipeg writer who spends her winter months in India with her Indian husband.