Malavika Gaur is 32 years old, and lives with her husband, Jitendra Lal (38 years old), and their five children in a rented house in a slum dwelling in Indore, India. All of their children are boys, aged 18, 15, 11, 8 and 4 years old. Malavika and Jitendra are construction workers, and their work particularly involves laying roofs on houses. Malavika and Jitendra usually go to work together. Their work is irregular in nature and there are days when they are unable to find work, as Malavika explains: ‘There is no assurance that we would always find work. Sometimes we need to come back home empty-handed.’ If Malavika is able to find work, she is on the worksite for nine hours. Sometimes it takes her an hour or two to reach the worksite on foot, but at other times she takes public transport. Their eldest two sons also engage in daily wage work, which involves transporting, loading and offloading bricks used for construction. Malavika is herself illiterate, and her eldest two boys dropped out of school after Primary level; however, the 11 and eight-year-old boys both attend school and the youngest will be starting soon too. The children first attended a government school but they faced a lot of bullying by the older children; as a result, Malavika and Jitendra moved them to a private school, but unable to afford the fees the children were moved back to the government school. The government school is far away along a busy road that has heavy traffic, and therefore Malavika has to walk the children to school and pick them up.
Malavika says that some household chores are shared among the family members:
His father [her husband, Jitendra] after coming back from work goes to fetch water, meanwhile I do the cleaning and the dishes. If the children come back early then they go to fetch water and clean the house as well.
However, the main responsibility for the housework lies with Malavika. She says that she wakes up at 4am to cook for the family and gets ready to leave for paid work by 7am. She does not like her children to use the gas stove for cooking as it is dangerous. If her children are home their grandmother, who lives next door, watches over them. Malavika says, ‘I prepare everything before leaving. I prepare the food and make rotis [bread], in case I feel that I am getting late then I give them money to buy sev [a local snack].’ Malavika and Jitendra return home from paid work at about 6–7pm.
The youngest child goes with Malavika to the worksite as there is no childcare provision available: ‘I carry him along with me since he was six months old.’ However, when one or more of her older children has a day off work or from school, she leaves him in their care. She explains that there are no crèches at the construction worksites – the child is made to sit still and she or the boys keep an eye on him.
He plays on the roadside with mud and sand used at the [construction] site… I do feel scared [for the child’s safety], but there is no choice as I have to work. There is constant moving traffic on the road and I need to cross the road at times to bring the construction material, so I leave him on the roadside. When he was an infant I used to leave him in the hammock. We used to look for a suitable place to make the hammock out of a saree [a garment consisting of a drape of five to nine yards long, worn traditionally by women in India].
Fetching water for drinking purposes is quite a time-consuming task for the family: ‘We need to go really far to fetch water.’ They normally have to make two or three trips to collect water from a public tap. The men use a bicycle to collect it, while Malavika carries the vessels on her head as she does not know how to ride a bicycle. Malavika adds, ‘it takes normally half an hour [one way], we also need to stand in a queue as there are too many people [who come to fetch water].’ The water for their household needs is also short in supply, and Malavika saves water by allowing the children to bathe on alternate days:
They take bath on alternate days, if I let them to bathe everyday then I will have a lot of laundry to wash. Five or six pairs of clothes for each, I will have to take a day off to only wash the clothes!
On the days that she is unable to find paid work, Malavika takes care of the household chores that have piled up. However, sometimes she has to miss going to work so that she can finish her unpaid care tasks. On a normal day when she does paid work, Malavika finishes her care duties by about 11pm.
Despite the bad working conditions at the worksite and the burden of her care tasks, Malavika does not have any better options for paid work. She explains her reasons for engaging in paid work:
I have got a big family, the money that my husband earns is not enough. He hardly gets Rs 200–300 daily. I have to spend at least Rs 100 on grocery and children even ask for Rs 5 or Rs 10 as pocket money. It is difficult to manage things in a single income. Both of us need to earn to run the house.
Jitendra explains that they are also in debt from loans that he took from his contractors during emergencies, and he adds ‘we already face a lot of problems due to low wage. Even my kids and wife go to work. I feel bad as kids don’t get education and I am still living in a rented house.’
Malavika also recalls how she sometimes has to make tough decisions due to concern for her children’s care:
When my youngest son was born in a government hospital I was admitted in the hospital for eight days. I was operated upon again for sterilisation the very next day after the c-section surgery. The doctor advised against it and told me that I was too weak to undergo the procedure, I told her to operate on me anyways as my mother was there with me in the hospital. Later it would have been tough to come back for operation after a month. Also there would have been nobody for eight days to look after the children and prepare food.
Malavika and her family live in dire circumstances and have been struggling to attain a decent life. Malavika is not a member of any organisations that could help her and her family improve their situation, including the Self Employed Women’s Association in Madhya Pradesh. She says she does not have to time to attend the meetings.