Sumita (32 years old) and Shyamlal Sharma (41 years old) live in a slum settlement in Ujjain, Madhya Pradesh, with their three daughters (aged 12, 11, 7) and their two-month-old son. All three daughters go to school. Sumita and Shyamlal themselves have studied up to primary level. Sumita is a home-based worker making incense sticks, while Shyamlal earns a daily wage working as a porter which involves loading and unloading materials from trucks. Shyamlal has long hours of work - he leaves home in the morning and returns only by midnight. Before the birth of her youngest child, Sumita could devote up to six hours a day in making incense sticks. Since then, Sumita has stopped making incense sticks, ‘as the boy is small and the material to make incense sticks is cold... ’, she said. By cold she means that inhaling the raw material leads to colds and respiratory problems. She also believes that the infection can pass on to the child through her breastfeeding, hence she plans to resume rolling incense sticks after her child weans off her breast milk.
At the time of giving birth to her youngest child, and for a month after that, Sumita lived at her sister’s place so she could get some help: ‘I have no one here to do [to take care of her]. Who will do? Only husband is around and he will not be able to do it.’ During that period, her sister also took care of Sumita’s other children, but this meant that the children could not go to school for two-and-a-half months. Savitri and Saachi, the eldest two daughters of Sumita are 12 and 11 years of age respectively. Both the girls help in many household chores, and in making incense sticks as well. Sumita shared that, ‘we three would sit together and make it… five kilogrammes of material... we had to sit from morning to evening to be able to complete it; otherwise, it would not be finished. I get Rs 50 for five kilos of the material.’ Sumita says that, ‘if I sat alone and would do it [incense stick rolling] then I wouldn’t be able to complete work worth even Rs 10.’ Children as young as five years old significantly help their mothers in rolling incense sticks in the locality. Sumita does not consider the option of working outside the home: ‘I was not allowed to do any work outside the house by my husband.’ Also she is not allowed to be a part of the Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) meetings and therefore is not a member of the organisation. She also thinks that the group is about saving money and that anyhow, she does not have enough to save, so becoming a member is not feasible for her.
Shyamlal’s work involves hard labour. Before leaving to work he fetches water in the morning and brings milk for the children. He does not encourage his wife to work outside home, and prefers home-based work for women, ‘so that they are able to help their children in their studies and at the same time take care of their domestic work,’ he stated. With Sumita’s incense stick work stalled after the birth of their youngest child, all the pressure of earning for the family has come upon him. He shows us marks on his body as a result of carrying heavy loads on his back, ‘it is really a hard work’, he said, ‘should I show you my back? You will be surprised to see it as I have to carry sacks on my back... look here... there is a depression here... this is caused due to loading... there is pain in my legs and hands.’ He further added, ‘sometimes I get Rs 200, sometimes Rs 500 but at times I don’t get even Rs 100… sometimes we take credit to meet our household expenditure.’ He is angry with the government for not doing enough for the poor. The prices are rocketing up while their purchasing power is limited, ‘what we are witnessing is steep price rise. Prices of pulses have gone up to Rs 200–220 per kilogramme.’ He further complains about the electricity charges, ‘for using just one bulb, one fan and TV one has to pay Rs 2,000 per month. How can we pay this much?’
There are fewer work opportunities in the community, especially with the closing of mills which offered regular work. Men mainly work as porters, construction workers, and other similar activities such as casual labourers. Women work largely as home-based workers, and those who are allowed to or can go outside to work , get employed as domestic workers, construction workers and street vendors. Sumita’s family is a typical family from Mayapuri in Ujjain. When they have infants at home, women stop making incense sticks for a few months and resume after the child is close to completing a year. There is a preschool in the locality for three to six year olds but no crèche for children under three. Children are very involved in making incense sticks at home under their mother’s guidance. As the piece rate for incense sticks is very low, the mother and children aim to make the maximum number of incense sticks to earn a nominal amount of money. The husband is usually already very tired to expect to be of much help in care work. Sumita says, ‘what work will he do? He comes at twelve in the night… so what work will he do?’ Shyamlal does fetch drinking water from across the railway line, which takes him about 15—20 minutes in the morning before going to work. Water for other purposes is available close by.
Decent work that addresses the strict gender norms controlling the mobility of women is crucially needed to enable women to explore better work options for themselves. But families also do not have childcare alternatives outside the home, which constrains women’s choices further as they need to stay at home to look after the children. Work on positive gender norms along with alternative care provision would be key in enabling better economic choices for the women and ultimately the family. At a macro level job creation, regulation of wages, and income security against losses (whether sudden or otherwise) are vital to ensure stability and security for families especially in the informal sector.