Teesta (35 years old) is a mother of eight children, of whom five are girls (aged 16, 15, 14, 12 years old and five months old), and three boys (aged six, four and three years old). Teesta’s husband (40 years old) works in Gujarat for agricultural work. Her eldest two daughters: Kavita who is the eldest and Suman who is 12 years old help her with her care tasks. Teesta’s house is very far up a hill. She lives at her farm – land recently allotted to them by the forest department. Teesta and her husband are both illiterate but all their children are attending school except for the youngest.
Teesta’s family does subsistence farming on their small landholding. However, this is unpredictable: ‘I sowed Tuar [a pulse] and maize, but due to the failure of monsoon entire crop was ruined.’ With irrigation facilities lacking, they are able to sow only once during the monsoon season. The family also collects some forest produce such as tendu leaves (leaves used for making beedis – a type of local cigarette) and gond (a substance used for making glue) and sell it in the market. But collection of forest produce is a risky venture because if they are caught by the forest department they have to pay a hefty fine or face being arrested. Teesta explained, ‘earlier we used to sell, but now the people of Gasansuri village [a nearby village] say that it is their jungle and that other villagers cannot take the forest produce from their jungle.’ In such a scenario, they are largely dependent on paid labour in agriculture (on land owned by others) or at construction sites by the state or private organisations. She added, ‘we do hard labour to survive’.
Teesta and her older daughters do agricultural work or construction work at sites in the vicinity depending on the availability. This includes working for Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), the forest department construction projects, and other constructions run by NGOs. When paid work is available, Teesta usually works for eight hours a day. However, she complained that paid work is not available on a regular basis and she has not been paid for the work she did under MGNREGA. Crèche facilities are not available close to the worksites, so the four and three year old go to a preschool but this is only for a short period of time during the day – it doesn’t cater to the childcare needs of mothers who work for long hours.
Teesta and her daughters share the care work including fetching water, collecting firewood, cleaning, washing, cooking and buying food from the fair price shop. The most time intensive and laborious care activity is fetching water as they have to walk for an hour one way and carry the water uphill to their house. The girls do this before going to school and sometimes after returning. Their mother also fetches water when the girls cannot. Collecting wood is also shared among all the older female members of the household. Of all the women, Teesta and the eldest daughter Kavita are mostly responsible for the care tasks. Getting food essentials from the government fair price shop can also take up to four hours, which includes walking to and fro and waiting at the shop, there are times when they have to return empty handed when it is overcrowded and the shop closes before their turn to buy.
Teesta’s husband does not share the care work as it is not in favour of the dominant gender norms. Teesta even found the suggestion of a man helping in the household chores funny, she said, ‘when I am there to make chapattis [Indian bread], why should my husband make? Why should a husband do a wife’s work?’ Teesta also shared that she does not like to question her husband much as being an alcoholic he beats her on the slightest irritation. Occasionally, Teesta’s mother-in-law comes over to help if Teesta is unavailable and if the older girls have to go to school.
As an effect of the immense work pressure on Teesta and her daughters, they complain of feeling exhausted by the end of the day. They do not have electricity in their house, so the daughters find it difficult to do care work or study at night. They are able to light only one earthen lamp as they cannot afford oil for lighting more lamps. Sometimes the oldest daughter has to miss school when her mother is ill. The older three daughters aged 16, 15, and as young as 12 years old do paid work at construction sites during vacations. Teesta is a member of a local women’s group but she finds it difficult to attend the meetings as she is unable to find time between her paid work and unpaid care work activities.
Teesta and her family are living in acute poverty conditions, but these conditions become even more severe with lack of basic services. Teesta and her daughters felt that at least the provision of clean drinking water close by would relieve them of an enormous burden and reduce their drudgery somewhat. It is also evident that the children were being pushed into paid labour to support their family. More availability of work with better payment methods and working conditions would also help in this situation. Teesta feels it is unacceptable that after working under MGNREGA, the workers are not being paid their due. She also suggests that agricultural productivity would improve through provision of irrigation facilities, which would alleviate poverty conditions and reduce the number of people migrating to work Gujarat.