Coping with impoverishment


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IN some of the households of former mill workers, the shortage of income has sometimes become so acute that impoverishment has given way to outright pauperisation. The household members can no longer afford to buy the basic necessities to survive. But even in the much larger numbers of households where the fall in earnings has been less severe, it is still hard to make ends meet. As a result of the gap between income and expenditure, the proportion of the household’s budget that has to be spent on food is much larger than before and many have been forced to cut back on both the quantity and quality of their daily food consumption. The tradition of celebrating family events with lavish meals and new clothes has been abandoned and little or no money is left for the purchase of consumer durables.



Although the lifestyle of the industrial workers allowed for few comforts, the large majority of ex-mill workers are connected to electricity and water supply, and two-thirds have a toilet in or close to the house. A bicycle and a table or ceiling fan are relatively normal and the majority have a radio and a sewing machine. A little under half still enjoy the luxury of a television set or a pressure cooker, purchased in better times. But many have had to sell such valuable possessions, and even more are no longer able to repair them if they break down. About half own the house they live in. The remaining rent their homes for around 100 to 150 rupees per month. Although many of these tenements are located in what now have become slum districts, this does nothing to impair their value for those who live in them. The quality of the dwellings has, however, suffered across the board, as the residents find themselves unable to afford even the most basic of repairs, for example to roofs or walls. And rent that was formerly well within their means has now become an almost unbearable burden.

A greater threat to the wellbeing of the former mill workers and their families than the deterioration in their food intake is the loss of their right to free or cheap medical care. In the past, they were members of the Employees State Insurance Scheme, set up by the government in 1948 for employees of public and private sector enterprises. ESIS is funded from contributions by employees and employers, while the government also gives a sizeable subsidy. Under the statutes of the scheme, the workers’ families are eligible for medical services, which are provided cost-free. ESIS has its own hospitals and neighbourhood clinics, where its own doctors see patients and prescribe medicines. When workers retired or were unable to go on working due to disability, the insurance cover continued for them and their wives, but those who lost their jobs for other reasons were automatically excluded from the scheme.

To their great anguish and resentment, this is what happened to the mill workers when they were dismissed. The benefit that the workers derived from their membership of ESIS was much greater than the contribution they paid into the fund and represented not less than 10 to 15 per cent of their salary. Now that they are no longer insured they try to rely on self-help and only call in low-grade doctors and quacks if they have no choice. These practitioners, who are often not properly trained, charge much more for a consultation or an injection than the insurance scheme. And for the treatment of stress and other mental problems that arose during and after the redundancy period there is neither the money nor the professional expertise.



Loss of social capital: The future of the new generation of children is in jeopardy because their schooling is cut short. The parents can no longer afford to invest in improving the life chances of their offspring. Primary school attendance is not much affected but the impact on more advanced education has been much greater. Apart from the fact that the cost of intermediate and vocational schooling far exceeds the household budget, the labour power of youngsters is a much needed source of income that has to be tapped at an early age. As a consequence, the level of knowledge of the new generation when they enter the labour market at very young age is often lower than that of the mill workers when they started their working lives many years ago.

Former mill workers also worry a great deal about their children’s life partners and the cost of marriages. Looking for suitable candidates is time-consuming and assumes that the parents have the opportunity to deliberate carefully on their choice. Financial considerations play a decisive role in the negotiations, which aim to secure the best candidate at the lowest price. In the absence of a reasonable dowry, gifts of money and commodities with which the arrangement is sealed, girls in particular are forced to accept partners who would never have been eligible before. A lower status, not only for the individual but for the whole family, is the price that has to be paid.



Building up reserves needed at times of crises is now completely out of the question. And setbacks occur more often and with greater intensity than before the mill closures. Initially, the workers could use their redundancy benefits, but these varied greatly in size and many received nothing at all. How was this money used? A small minority managed to deposit at least part in a savings account, and were resolved not to eat into it until the time came for which it was intended – usually for house purchase or future repairs or for the marriage of sons or daughters.

A much larger number indicated that they had to use the money to pay for medical care, urgent home repairs or the repayment of debts. By far the largest share was spent on day-to-day expenses since, with the difficult adjustment to a lower level of income, this was the only way that the households could meet their recurrent needs. Clearly this situation, in which expense exceeded income, came to an end when the reserves had been exhausted. Redundancy payments were far less than most of the workers were entitled to and, moreover, were paid in instalments over an extended period. This explains why workers could not resist the temptation to spend the money as it came in. Most of them therefore clung to their previous way of life and spending pattern for much longer than they were able to afford.

The dramatic fall in the standard of living of the former mill workers undermined their self-confidence. After the shock of being expelled from the mill came the discouraging experience of looking for a new job, accompanied as it was by the loss of skill and a much lower wage. We heard how the men were completely at a loss in the early days following their dismissal. They would not talk for days on end and refused to take food. Their loss of vitality was so great that even the lightest of physical activity was seen as too exhausting. Some stayed at home, others left the house early in the morning and came back late at night, refusing to disclose where they had been or what they had been doing.



This state of shock easily led to health problems which had previously received little attention. Such ailments were used as an excuse to avoid helping with the daily household chores. ESIS medical records show an increasing number of patients in the industrial neighbourhoods with heart problems and high blood pressure. The greatest demand was for social care and psychological counselling, but this was not covered by the insurance. Social relationships within the family suffered. Husbands and wives quarrelled, often leading to violence on the part of the man, and sometimes even vice versa. Tensions also increased between parents and children. According to primary and secondary school teachers in the industrial neighbourhoods, children had become unruly and ‘difficult’, had problems concentrating and complained about troubles at home.



Change in gender balance: Little has survived of the men’s former claim to be the primary provider for the household. After the loss of their permanent jobs and the relatively high wages to which they were accustomed, many feel useless, apathetic and aggrieved. The other members of the household are expected to show sympathy and understanding for their plight, but as time has passed, this has given way increasingly to irritation about the victims’ persistent complaining and inability to accept reality. The need to keep their heads above water demands that they no longer dwell on what has been lost but try and make the best of it.

The women, who have always been much more involved in the daily struggle to keep the household going and who learned much earlier that they had to look after others and not just themselves, seem much more able to adjust to the precariousness of the new circumstances than their male partners. It should not be forgotten that they too were affected, not so long ago, by the redundancy that has now so defeated the men. The expulsion of female workers from the mills, however, generated little or no commotion at the time. This was the consequence of new attitudes that came to the fore as the process of industrialisation and urbanisation progressed. In this ‘modern’ view, the basic social unit was the nuclear family, with the man as the breadwinner, the woman as wife and mother and the children as dependent members of the household, exempted from labour.

The ideology of men as the breadwinners explains why they felt ashamed after being made redundant. Their dismissal marks them as failures, not only in their own eyes but also in those of the other household members. The greater resilience of the women in surviving the crisis must be understood in this light. When confronted with their own ‘redundancy’ in the mills, they were not supposed to have experienced it as a major problem. A large number had to continue their working life without interruption but less visibly, at home or on the street.



In fact it has often been the female members of the household who have shown the men how to find work in the informal sector of the economy. This is the case for those who work at home, such as Muslim women, who sew clothes, or Padmashali women, who make incense sticks. It has become normal for the men to go and collect the raw material from and return the finished goods to the contractor, and receive the payment, while the women and children take care of the actual production work.

Former mill workers have also become street vendors and are now active in various trades that were formerly the domain of the women. Waghari women do not mind men of their own caste selling vegetables, but they do resent their tendency to want to dominate. The men set up shop in the front rows, where the most customers pass, put their wares on a small table so that they are more conspicuous, or park their handcarts so that there is little of no space left for the women.

In this chapter the focus has been on the process of impoverishment and its impact on the household. We now go on to look at how the deterioration in the quality of the lives of the former textile workers has manifested itself beyond the level of the household, and why the dissatisfaction that this has generated has not been expressed in forms of protest and resistance in the textile neighbourhoods.


* Extracted from Working in the Mill No More. Text by Jan Breman, Photographs and Design by Parthiv Shah. Oxford University Press, 2004. Reprinted with permission.