Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Domestic workers contest elections

by Samyabrata Ray Goswami
As Mumbai gets ready for the elections to the country’s richest municipal corporation, domestic workers have thrown their hats in the ring. Other than a slice of the Greater Mumbai Municipal Corporation’s yearly pie of Rs 80,000 million to improve their lot, they are seeking a say in its working.

This is a first in the country, but not surprising in a city where the poorer classes have grown more and more aware of political empowerment since the drive to erase urban slums began in Mumbai’s chase of the Shanghai dream.

“I am what they call a migrant. But who is not? Even Sonia Gandhi is a migrant,” said 40-year-old Malan Sonawane, a domestic help contesting the polls from ward 87 in low-income Golibar.

“All working-class people are migrants at some level or the other. Does it mean they will have no rights where they work? As a domestic worker, I also represent the pain and helplessness of other poor people whom this city would use but not claim as its own.”

Sonawane is a member of the domestic workers’ union Ghar Kamghar Mulkarni Sanghatana, which is putting up candidates in 20 of the 227 poll-bound wards. With its 25,000 members, the Sanghatana is the largest domestic workers’ union in the state and has the backing of the CPI labour arm, Aituc.

The Sanghatana is part of a Left-led front of affiliates of the CPI, CPM and Prakash Ambedkar’s Bharatiya Republican Party, which is fielding 75 candidates. They are expected to win only four seats or so.

Sonawane is one of the few Sanghatana candidates expected to win, and shoulders the challenge of scripting a Left presence in Mumbai’s elected bodies after years.

“We are not expecting much. But in this city, where the Left hasn’t won a single seat in any kind of election for years, it certainly matters even if we win just two or three seats,” said Dhruv Redkar of Aituc.

Sitting in her kitchen, rustling up a family meal before she has to rush to her job at a nearby high-rise, Sonawane is unaware of her role in the Left movement.

“I don’t know about these big things. If I win, we can bargain hard as a group in the area. The police trouble us; the landlords trouble us; the employers trouble us. We are at other people’s mercy — if they don’t like our face, we are done for. There are no guarantees. I hope to ensure some guarantees if I am elected,” she said.

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