Ruchika is a 28-year-old tribal woman who works as a street vendor dealing in plastic goods in the urban sprawl of Indore in Madhya Pradesh, India. She is educated up to Pre-Secondary level (Grade 6–8). She lives with her husband (aged 30), mother-in-law (aged 50) and her two young sons, aged eight and five. She sells goods on the streets of Indore along with her husband and mother-in-law.
Ruchika’s mother-in-law, who was widowed at a young age and has single-handedly brought up her three children, has been a street vendor for several years. Ruchika’s husband used to be employed as a driver, but frustrated with the job and the way his boss, ‘would order [him] around,’ he quit his job to take up street vending. At this job, he says, there is, ‘no one to question me and no one to answer to. No one asks me to come at a certain time, or say anything or question. There is no tension, I work as a free man.’ This occupation is also a recent change in Ruchika’s life as until 2–3 months ago, she stayed at home to look after her children. Now that her children are attending school, and given the rise in the cost of living, Ruchika has joined her mother-in-law and husband in street vending. They each push carts from their home to various locations in town (15–30 minutes away) to sell their wares. Her husband procures the goods from the market. She spends five hours every day, juggling this work with her unpaid care work responsibilities.
During the school holidays, Ruchika takes her two children along with her on the cart because she has nobody to care for them at home. During school term time, she readies the children for school before heading out to work by 7/8am, and her brother-in-law, who lives close by, drops them at school. She also uses the anganwadi (childcare centre run by the government under the Integrated Child Development Scheme) in her neighbourhood as a supplementary day care centre, although she bemoans the timings of the anganwadi: ‘[the anganwaadi] opens at 11am, and they close it at 2pm… if you open it only for some time… then who will go to study there?’
Ruchika prefers home-based work and thinks it is more suitable for women due to its location, but her previous experience with home-based work has not been good in terms of earnings. Ruchika’s husband is also conflicted with the idea of women engaging in paid work outside of the house. On the one hand, he says, ‘it depends on the woman’ whether to work outside the house. On the other hand, he holds a normative view of a gendered allocation of roles and responsibilities:
Yes, [women should stay at home] so that they can take care of the children. Stay at home, so that if a guest visits us, they can cater to them, and take care of the house as well. When everyone goes out, the house has to be locked and there is no one to take care of it.
Ruchika acknowledges that although being a street vendor poses tough working conditions, the family earns a better income from this, than from home-based work.
Ruchika’s mother-in-law shares her care work in the house. Her husband steps in when she and/or her mother have their period and are unable to cook for the household. Ruchika’s brother-in-law also supports her care work, ferrying her children to school every day. Her relatives also look after the children when she requires their support.
Ruchika is fortunate to have relatively good access to public services: she has access to tap water in her house, anganwadis close by, hospitals where she delivered her children (and received maternity benefits from the state), and a ration shop where she accesses subsidised rations. However, she does not have good sanitation facilities in the house, and this causes a nuisance as the drain water collects inside and outside without an outlet. She says:
I mean the water doesn’t exit… we are very troubled about the bathing situation, we wash clothes outside. In the morning, too, we bathe quickly, sometimes we don’t bathe, sometimes we bathe at the ‘bori’ [bore well], we bathe this way.
Ruchika’s neighbours have fitted drain pipes into their homes, but this is not a simple solution, as drain pipes do not really solve the sanitation issue in the area, and is a source of conflict within the community. As Ruchika explains:
If we put them in then something or the other would happen, there would be a fight about there being so much slush from your house, ‘the hair is going there’, so there would have been a big challenge… ‘you have plastic bags in yours,’ who would fight?
In addition, Ruchika really struggles with the relationship with her husband. Her husband recently left her for six months, and is alcoholic and abusive. Ruchika is nervous and cautious revealing this information, saying, ‘don’t tell anyone… my mother-in-law is also here… madam, you won’t go and ask him right… if you ask then there will be a fight.’ Ruchika says that her husband drinks alcohol: ‘he drinks in the evening and goes off to sleep… but his mind gets disturbed… and he takes his anger out at home… if someone outside says something, then he takes his anger out at home.’
Although Ruchika is theoretically a member of the Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), she has not really participated in its activities. Her husband did not want her to participate, and as she explains, ‘it is important that I listen to what he has to say, right?’ Her husband’s decision-making extends to monetary decisions too. Whatever money Ruchika makes from her cart of plastic goods, she hands over to her husband: ‘we bring everything together, but I give the money [into] his hands.’