Daughter of a taxi-driver from Uttar Pradesh, Aarti Jaiswal (26) is a sort of big sister to the six girls who share a paying guest accommodation with her in Naigaon, Vasai (East). With most girls struggling to keep their jobs, she sometimes tells them why she chose to live alone on a bunk-bed in a tiny flat.
“If I go back home, it’ll be more difficult than ever to avoid getting married. So, I’m going to fight it out and stay back somehow, finish my law degree and build a career,” she says. Aarti works with a health insurance company and has managed to keep her job, for now.
The other girls in the flat are incredibly young, one just 19 years old and looking for work-from-home opportunities.
Priya Maurya (20) has been working for two years already, and could dip into her savings to survive the lockdown period. “My mother supports me completely. I asked her what was the point of educating me if they just want to get me married,” says Priya, whose parents own a very small plot of agricultural land in Uttar Pradesh.
Raised by relatives, she is about to complete her graduate course in banking and insurance, and has worked as a “promoter” of FMCG items in departmental stores and as a credit card salesperson.
When the nationwide lockdown was imposed in March, the girls in the flat found they could neither afford to restock groceries and also pay rent, nor could they step out to look for help amid aggressive police action.
Priya, who sometimes made up to Rs 22,000 a month, sends money home to her parents, and couldn’t have asked relatives to help her out. Eventually, a local good samaritan heard of their plight and began to bring them grocery kits.
For tens of thousands of young women like Aarti and Priya, first-generation learners who fought off outraged families and traditional expectations to earn for themselves a measure of independence and the prospect of a career in and around Mumbai, the current job crisis and continuing closure of malls and suburban trains bring frightening choices. Many say they have no option but to board a train back to a system they had escaped, if things don’t improve soon.
Across Vasai, Naigaon, Virar and Nallasopara are scores of flats rented by these young women, known for paying rent diligently and keeping the flats clean. “I searched on Google for cheap rental space, and this is what popped up,” says a call centre operator who lives on Mira Road with three other girls. Choosing not to be identified, she says her parents back in Uttarakhand don’t know she has lost her job. “I’ll tell them after I have found something else,” she adds. She has colleagues who could find work if the suburban trains resumed, and another colleague who once tried to queue up outside a community kitchen, the only girl among hundreds of men.
There are a handful of call centres in Mira Bhayander, and young men and women have both lost jobs. But the girls have pressing reasons not to return to the safety net of families.
In the Naigaon flat, Aarti says she knows of many who got calls summarily dismissing them with 15 days’ pay. One of Aarti’s roommates from West Bengal lost her job but found a new one as a translator for call centres servicing Nepali customers in the US.
Nirja Bhatnagar, Maharashtra head of ActionAid India, which ran a project tracing the lives of young girls in an urban cluster, compared their struggles to the fight for acceptability and the tendency to bond with other women.
“They too are migrants from a depressed economy to a progressive economy, but the city as an engine of development does not actually have space for them. Migration is a relationship between capital and labour, but labour is generic and doesn’t deal with the intersectionalities that women live in, urbanity doesn’t account for the specific problems of, say, single Dalit women,” she says.
This is also why unmarried migrant women workers are most visible in the highly informal sector where the pay is the lowest, such as the thousands of very young women from Jharkhand who work as domestic helps in Mumbai.
Activist Mukta Srivastava was recently contacted by an orphanage in Navi Mumbai – one of their girls who had found a job in Delhi a few months earlier was now struggling to make rent, and also needed money for food and medicines. “Using our network of activists, we were able to reach her,” Srivastava says.
In a similar case, a 19-year-old girl, who only recently left a government-aided orphanage in Mumbai to begin life as an independent woman in a paying guest flat in Vasai, found herself dependent on strangers’ goodwill, as the lockdown made it impossible to meet her tele-sales targets. Diagnosed as depressive in her childhood, she is struggling to hit reset, having resumed anti-depressants after a kind therapist connected her to a psychiatrist, and another activist helped arrange a taxi for her to visit the clinic.
Vasai resident Devendra Jena, who has been supplying grocery kits to migrant families in the Vasai-Virar-Nallasopara-Naigaon belt, said he realised when he offered relief kits to some of these girls that they needed much more than just groceries. “They needed sanitary napkins, medicines, recharge for their phones to stay in touch with parents, they needed help getting transportation for trips to a doctor. We redoubled our efforts after understanding their peculiar needs to survive in the city,” says Jena, who works through Vasai-based organisations Jan Kalyan Samiti, Rashtriya Jagruti Mandal and Wings Foundation.
Bhatnagar points out that the state made no specific effort for gendered relief to the migrants, rendering these young women with white collar jobs invisible. “Not just for the pandemic, but in general, government interventions are needed for such single women migrants, including rental housing in various categories, dormitories or accessible and clean women’s hostels among others,” she says. “If ‘Build Back Better’ is the motto, we hope the post-Covid rebuilding will take into account this need for young women’s living spaces and return to them their dignity.”
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