33 year old Roshni Mimroth lives with her husband, Jairam (35 years old), and their four children: two daughters (12 and 3 years old) and two sons (10 and 8 years old). The three eldest children go to school, albeit irregularly. Roshni and Jairam are themselves illiterate. They both work as daily wage workers, predominantly employed in construction. When construction work is not available, Roshni also makes agarbatti (incense sticks) at home. Although, construction work is hard labour, involving up to eleven long hours of manual work a day, often in scorching heat, she says ‘I do construction work more because I get a little more money than agarbatti-making work.’ Sometimes Roshni is also able to find work as an agricultural labourer close to the forest, but living in an urban setting, agricultural work is a rarity. Construction work is irregular in nature and Roshni and Jairam may get work for the whole week or for only a few days a week. Usually they walk to the construction site, although sometimes public transport is available. During the monsoon season there is no construction work available.
Roshni explains that there are no crèche facilities at the construction worksites and that her children follow her around the site. When her second son was younger and was with her at the worksite, he fell from the first floor of the building that was under construction and got seriously hurt:
Is it our fault that he fell down while playing? His father took him to the hospital on the contractor’s motorcycle. And he didn’t know whether we would have taken any action against him or not. We saved him by not complaining against him.
Roshni and Jairam did not receive any medical cover from their employer or the contractor and had to bear all of the medical costs for their son’s injuries. As a result of this, Roshni takes along either one of her sons to watch over her youngest daughter while she does her construction work. The older child does not attend school when this happens. The construction worksite locations change regularly, depending on the length of the project – sometimes there are smaller construction projects that do not last for more than a month. Therefore, it is difficult to establish a relationship with an employer in order to be able to negotiate working conditions.
On the other hand, making incense sticks at home requires many hours of work and has low returns. Roshni explains that the process of making incense sticks is so simple that her children can join in with her: ‘the procedure is similar to making rotis [Indian bread], we prepare the dough using the raw materials and roll them and put it on a thin stick to make agarbattis.’ Although the procedure is simple the work involves sitting in a bent position for a long period of time, which results in back ache. Roshni says,
I face a lot of problems [when making agarbatti], my back hurts a lot. I have to sit the whole day like this and work on the raw material. If I sit for long then I get a cramp in my legs.
The three eldest children also roll incense sticks, and the youngest – who is only three – is also learning to do it. The elder children have to compromise on their education to meet the target of making enough incense sticks; Roshni stresses, ‘Yes, they are unable to study but what do we do? It is necessary to work also!’ Our interviews found that in Ujjain and Indore the majority of households involve their children in paid work to a significant extent.
Roshni and Jairam both try to think of better paid work alternatives for Roshni that will involve less drudgery and that will be close to home, but they do not have the capital to engage in other types of work: ‘My husband said that I will get you the bowl making machine but the machine costs Rs 6,000. Now, where do we get that money from?’ Roshni further adds, ‘there is no other work. There is no facility here at my house. I don’t have a sewing machine to do stitching work and neither am I trained to do such work. It is good to work from home.’ Hence, Roshni and Jairam have found it difficult to find alternative paid work opportunities and are stuck with the vagaries of their current work.
When Roshni is at the construction worksite her 12-year-old daughter looks after the household chores such as sweeping, cleaning and washing, after returning home from school. However, she is too young to cook. When Roshni is working from home, however, she manages almost all of the household chores by herself. Jairam does not contribute to the care tasks unless Roshni is unwell and there is no other adult to take over the responsibility; he explains: ‘I have never done all this work since childhood. I come from a big family so there was never a need for me to do the work. When I moved out, I got married.’ When Roshni is unwell, her parents also come over to help. She recalls that when she had to undergo surgery, her mother came over and took charge of the household; she adds that her husband also devotedly looked after her. Jairam himself is facing perennial swelling in his legs, which he calls ‘fever in my legs.’ He adds that if ‘the treatment was cheap, I would have got it done but it is Rs 60,000 and not affordable.’ Roshni’s in-laws, who are her next door neighbours, also help in small ways but when extended support is needed, Roshni’s parents come to stay with the family. Despite their poverty, Roshni and Jairam have to send their children to a private school and incur school fees as there is no government school in the vicinity.
Roshni’s family is facing a lack of options and choices in paid work on the one hand, and on the other, a lack of access to care resources. Furthermore, with no security to cover times when there is an urgent need for money, the family is living on the edge. Such is the case for many of the families we interacted with during our fieldwork. There is a need for urgent attention to the provision of public care services in the area such as crèches both close to home and at worksites; medical, health, life and general insurance; and social security cover. If this does not happen, families will find it extremely difficult to break the cycle of poverty; more so in the case of women who bear a greater burden of managing care work and paid work in circumstances of dire poverty and lack of support.