Legumes vs. labour rights: how Indian women pay for the cost of dal

A cooking project in Asia’s biggest informal settlement brings into focus the millions of workers denied a share in the world’s seventh-largest economy.

Prajna Desai
18 April 2016

In November 2015, the Indian national press was agog over the criminal price of dal (lentils). The government’s 5.5 per cent inflation rate somehow didn’t square with the 105 per cent spike in the store price of three staple dals, on top of an already prohibitive price tag slapped on in previous years. December came. Nothing changed. Paying a king’s ransom for dal became the status quo for families habituated to shelling out 60-70 per cent of their monthly incomes on basic food.

Dharavi. Photo: Neville Sukhia; Image courtesy of The Indecisive Chicken. 

In the media, the events unraveled in the language of a detective story. Certain news agencies claimed to have uncovered a shocking network of fraudulent Indian importers, kickbacks implicating officials at shipping companies, and unlawful hoarding, which collectively came to be known as ‘the dal scam’. Corollaries in the cost of restaurant food regularly surfaced in news reports and in everyday conversation. Yet no one seemed to wonder what the rising cost of food was doing to one underclass of worker - ordinary Indian housewives.


Rizwana Qureishi demonstrating how to make chicken biryani. Photo: Neville Sukhia; Image courtesy: The Indecisive Chicken.

Recounting the dal scam, I am reminded of laments by housewife Rizwana Qureishi during a project I conducted in Mumbai in 2014. The Dharavi Food Project, developed in what is known as Asia’s largest informal settlement, set out to study home-cooking as an integration of food, art and women’s labour. The collaboration involved dozens of housewives from low-income backgrounds, of which eight finally participated in staged cooking sessions over thirteen weeks. Discussion, debate and archiving recipes were integral to each meeting and the operation evolved into a mixed-genre book about food, aesthetics and women’s labour. Rizwana, one of its protagonists, often remarked on how the high price of basic foods meant continual cost-cutting in the kitchen. Making every last thing from scratch enabled her to continue cooking reasonably good meals, despite a shrinking budget, and on average, kitchen work consumed two thirds of her day. Were it up to her, Rizwana would spend that time cooking for pay in other people’s houses. At home, she was drudge - loved, but overworked. Outside, her talents were bound to accrue a more useful kind of love: pay.

In August 2015, The Hindu reported on six women in the village of Peepli Khera (60km from New Delhi) who defied the village council to work in nearby factories. Concurrently, The New York Times carried a statistically-oriented think piece co-written by a Harvard public policy professor and a Harvard bureaucrat. Titled, “Why aren’t India’s women working?” it listed reasons that an ensuing NYT report chronicled through the colourful lives of those seven notorious women in Peepli Khera. Building on The Hindu’s story, the NYT gave a blow-by-blow account of female determination and the hunger for work pitted against male domination. The women’s physical hardships and struggle to adhere to caste strictures around contact inevitably read as a metaphor for the Indian social landscape.

Across swathes of the country, patriarchal sanction denies women public contact with men, and within conservative Hindu communities, with castes other than their own. A paying job invariably entails one or both. Consider the bane of being female in India. Gender-defined imperatives meanwhile oblige women to cook, clean, and look after children, and the old—what social sciences term unpaid ‘care work’. Women are required to collect food and fuel, and fetch water (due to poor infrastructure), work in family businesses, and should they live in rural settings, cattle-graze, winnow, and work in the fields—that is, to perform unpaid work. Being stuck in such dead-end jobs, deemed low-skill and low value, with no prospect of upward mobility or promotion, seems to confirm women’s presumed non-productivity. Working in factories and earning a salary obviously upends the algorithm in every way, and not just by showing that women have a right to paid work.

Since the late 1990s, left-leaning economists Jayati Ghosh and Indira Hirway and social scientist Nandita Ghosh have contended that the consummation of women’s right to work, a constitutionally-protected right, is intertwined with rethinking unpaid work. Ideally, women should not have to fight to take up jobs. Yet nor should women working without pay be written out of economic narratives. For women’s care work to count as real work, it must first become economically visible. Measuring it as GDP would integrate it into the System of National Accounts (currently blind to care work) and bind it with productive economy. The latest reports by McKinsey indicate that Indian women perform ten times as much unpaid work as men, accounting for up to 39 per cent of India’s GDP. Tacking that onto the 20 per cent women currently contribute to the GDP would instantly reveal how little men in India actually work: 41 per cent of the GDP.

Cut to Bombay (now Mumbai) 1972, where a prolonged women’s protest against food inflation pre-emptively vindicated the feminist labour theory of value set forth by Ghosh, Hirway, and Gandhi. Jointly organised by leaders of communist and socialist parties, the ‘Anti Price Rise Movement’ (APRM) for three years prior to Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s authoritarian rule galvanised almost 20,000 women in street protests against the cost of food essentials, including grains, cooking oil, sugar, and kerosene. The movement’s historic call to action has in itself been cast by some commentators as a human rights manifesto. Where domestic work is already disproportionately performed by women, food and fuel inflation force them to opt for relatively cheap home-produced goods and services and further tax their time, leaving little for rest or to acquire human capital - education or skills - that would prepare them for jobs in the paying labor market. In short, food inflation compromises their right to work.

It is over forty years since the APRM ended. Many of the same patterns created by food inflation persist today, yet little like the APRM seems possible. As Gandhi warned in 1994, viewing the right to work in isolation ends up skewing gender equity as something that applies purely to women. It obscures that men’s shunning of domestic responsibility has created a sexual division of labour that “haunts women in the labour market”. Today, the thin trickle-down of India’s selectively-booming economy has spawned a flimsy but functional delusion, whereby people with access to utilitarian or good-quality education, well-paying jobs, and liberal forms of sociality seem to believe that Indian women have opportunities by the dozen.

My work in the Dharavi Food Project showed otherwise. Right from our first meeting, participant Kavita Kawalkar expressed the desire to become a teacher. Yet a year later, she confessed that study time for a teaching diploma was eating into her care work at home. Couldn’t her husband help out? She looked at me, dumfounded. No, he would not. So instead, she had opted for a part-time clerical job requiring no extra training. Then there was Sarita Rai, a mother of three from a small village in north India who had moved to Dharavi to be with her husband, a peon in a courier’s office. The needs of Sarita’s children and extended family take up most of her time, but in the afternoon, she spends an hour or two on piece-rate work, attaching sequins to tunics. How many does she complete in a day? Rs. 50 (50 pence) worth. Would she like to make more? Of course, she would. Except care work comes first. By the time the workshops ended, Sarita had gone from handsome and healthy to thin and wan. The physical strain of caring for a large family had so debilitated her hands she could no longer sew. The lost allowance was her bitterest regret.


Tring to archive recipes. Photo: Neville Sukhia; Image courtesy: The Indecisive Chicken. 

But the most prescient remarks came from Kavita Vishwakarma. In September 2014, on the workshop’s last day, she offered a common Hindi proverb to describe why the Dharavi Food Project struck a chord with her: “You know what they say, ‘homemade chicken gravy is just like ordinary dal.’” The proverb’s literal meaning is that homemade dal is a basic food while homemade chicken is not. Since chicken costs more (or did before the dal scam), dal is naturally valued less than chicken. And here begins the proverb’s implication: Women are like chicken: special. But at home they’re as good as ordinary dal. They mean nothing. They are nothing. Kavita was making a point about how the workshops had framed her cooking - her unpaid work - as art and productivity. Her recipes had been archived. Her story was recorded. She was going to appear in a book that would be sold. The pieces were beginning to fall into place. Cooking was real, gainful work, and she was a worker as productive as they come.  

Two decades after the struggle to re-evaluate the gainful participation of women in India’s economy began in 1977, a path-breaking survey was conducted by India’s Central Statistics Office (CSO) to study how men and women spent their time. Its staggering discoveries did not graduate into policies integrating unpaid women’s labour into national accounting. But last year, the CSO announced its intention to roll out a comprehensive all-India time-use survey to address gender imbalance. It will be two more years before the survey launches. Until then, millions of Indian women continue to be obscured as non-workers. But not the women of Peepli Khera, whose fight, much more than securing their right to work, must be understood as a boycott of invisibility. 


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