Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The Crisis of Zari Zardosi work in Uttar-Pradesh

Shabanam’s struggle for dignity and honor By Vidya Bhushan Rawat She is about 28 year old living in a very dilapidated structure of Muraintola near Lala Bazar, in the nondescript district Fatehpur of Uttar-Pradesh, about 150 kilometer from Allahabad and nearly 70 kilometer from Kanpur town. Once a constituency of former prime minister V.P.Singh, Fatehpur is a rural district lacking basic developmental facilities with a fairly large number of backward community people living along with Dalits and Muslims. Shabanam has graduated in Urdu language from a local women’s college. Two of her elder sisters got married many years back but now the burden of her family rest on her. She lost her father Babu Ali Khan when she was just studying in the IIIrd standard. None in her family was literate but she wanted to study. As the financial condition of her family was worst, a thought to get admission in the school was nearly impossible without a strong support. She had three brothers who were elder to her, too worked at the local shops and her mother worked as domestic labour. Somehow she completed her VIIIth and the family people asked her to stop then lacking financial resources. Fact is that more than the financial resources it is the labour resources that they want from their children. The family was in to Beedi making and also doing the zari-zardosi work which was actually not able to sustain the family as the payments were low and exploitation high. It is an organised crime against these unorganised people, a regular perpetuation of criminality mixed in class, gender and religious bias. One of her sisters actually understood her ambition to study further and promised that she would support her in studies. That helped Shabnam in completing her 10th standard. Unfortunately, her sister who supported her died leaving her future to further uncertainties. Yet, she decided that whatever happens she would study further. She understood well that for that she needed economic independence. She started making Beedis in the night and used to go college in the morning which helped her completing her graduation. Her three brothers were illiterate and did not show any interest in education. Two of them were into tailoring work while the third one was a carpenter. All of them got married somehow and were living with their families. In fact, running the family was solely the duty of Shabnam. In a sad turn of event, her younger brother died leaving his wife and child to be fetched by Shabnam. When we see the home they live in, it shows their desperation. In the absence of the state’s duty, most of the Muslims masses are destined to feed themselves in such a way as Shabnam is doing. They have no idea that they have certain rights too envisaged in the constitution and that the government need to honour them. It is tragic that the community is living in such a state that its political class has no time to look beyond its narrow and self cantered political agenda while those playing secular politics are just not able to look beyond their narrow political agenda. Shabnam’s trial did not end with the death of her brother. Nearly three months after her brother had died, her sister in law also passed away leaving her baby in her hands. One of her elder brother live with her family but his income is not enough to feed his three children. The macabre dance of deaths that Shabnam witnessed in her family can’t be just coincident but the brutal fact of prevailing health conditions among the artisans working in beedi and zardosi work. They suffer silently and before they could realise that some disease has caught them, it is too late. These young deaths are brutal reminder of complete failure of state, civil society and our governance system to look beyond the traditional work of ‘development’. Developmental agenda of our country has still remained biased towards Muslims and fail to provide them any alternatives and support despite their efforts to continue with age old traditions and occupations particularly in terms of arts and music which clearly is our national heritage. At the moment, Shabnam is actually the guardian of her mother, her elder sister who is not married and the 10 years old son of her brother. The family lives in a desperate situation. The rooms are dark with virtual no air or light. Looking like shell of an old jail, you can find here the aging and isolated Muslim population living in disgusting conditions, of course with smiling faces. Dr Salim, an old man in his seventies who claims to be a ‘doctor’ owns this dilapidated structure with about five tenants each paying nearly Rs 500/- as rent. One can understand what could be the living conditions of these houses in such an amount. The ‘doctor’ himself needs a doctor as age has caught him and his condition look grim and pathetic. The rent, perhaps, is the only source of his survival as one does not know whether he still ‘practices’ or not. Shabnam lives in one of these rooms with her family. The dirty lanes that leads to her home in Murain Tola, Fatehpur, openly speak about the seriousness of the local authorities related to Muslim community particularly those who are living in depressing conditions. Most of the occupants, here live in dark single rooms and mostly engaged in the handicraft work. At the rooftop, Shabnam introduce me to another zardosi worker Naseema Khatoon, who has started her morning work. It is just 9 am and yet most of the people had started working on their ‘projects’. Naseema has three children and her husband is a tailor master. I asked her about her life, her earnings, her fears and future which she feels remain uncertain at the moment. And according to her, ‘It is painful living with no security of life and family as each one suffer as running a home in these time of inflation is nearly impossible’. She does the Zardosi work and could earn Rs 20-25 per day. A deep sense of insecurity and uncertainty looms large over her face as she does not want to speak saying what is the outcome of speaking to you? People come and report but our plight remain the same, says, Naseema. With no fixed income and no social security such as a BPL card which could enable them to procure the essential commodities in fair prices, life is harder. One does not really know why the ‘pro poor’ programmes have not reached the Muslims. Shabnam says that so many houses were constructed in the name of poor like Kanshiram Shahari Avaas Yojna, Indira Awas Yojna, Balmiki Ambedkar Avas Yojana and nowhere did even a single person from her community got a house. Isn’t it a bias in our governance structure and its so-called anti-poverty programmes that have left the poor Muslim in the belief that she does not have right? As Shabnam takes me to another house of another family engaged in this work which does not fulfil their minimum daily needs, the same question comes in my mind as why despite hard work these families are most marginalised. Meena is on the work at the compound of her home in the early hours. Despite working all through the day, the four sisters still find it very difficult to get going. They have no support from any quarters for their survival. No ration card and no job security. ‘ We lost our father several years back. He was a scooter mechanic and my younger sister now looks after his work’, said a Meena who remains illiterate and yet has a zeal to study. They are five sisters in all in which one is married. At this small kuchcha home, these four sisters live together and earn their living. Meena’s elder sister Asma is looking after her father’s work in the mechanic shop and repair cycle and scooters. Actually, this family is related to Shabnam and like her these girls are taking care of their own families with all what they could do. I have the same question about their studies and most of them actually suggest that they want to study but circumstances have forced them to be in this work. ‘Don’t you think this art will die, if you people also leave this work in the absent of fair compensation?’, I ask. ‘You see the problem is not the work but our financial capacity. Most of the work is actually not coming directly to these artisans. The middlemen in Kanpur and Delhi actually procure orders from the businessmen and then give it to us on a very low rate, says Shabnam. In the market, the stuff created by these artisans is appreciated and have large buyers but behind these beautiful creations are some bitter truth of negligence, exploitation and painful living conditions. Most of the people engaged in this work suffer from eye sight problems, migraine etc. Since this work does not fetch enough money to run even a single person’s life, young woman like Shabanam take to other work of Beedi making which add to their miseries further. As an instant rehabilitation, it might help them earn some money but make them vulnerable to other diseases like tuberculosis and skin diseases. The women chose beedi making due to various social stigmas attach to her particularly when she venture out. In such a society, it would be difficult for a working woman to survive if any day her name is attached to someone. Most of the time, women do not feel safe in going out and as they are illiterate hence it would not be possible for them to get even a safe job except domestic worker which too is very limited in the town. Asma, elder sister of Meena runs a scooter and cycles repair shop in the market. As I go along with Shabnam to speak to her, she does not feel comfortable in speaking to me. She earn about Rs 3000 per month which goes in running her house. ‘Many reporters came here and written about me and appreciated of my work but I am not comfortable doing this work’, she says and adds that ‘ It is not a worthwhile work for woman like me as people gaze at me and speak about me when I lie down to repair the scooter or fix the puncture. I am not doing this work at my own’. ‘ If I get an opportunity and some funds, I will leave this work and venture into cosmetic shop which is more ‘respectable’, she says. This shows the concerns, pain and fears of Muslim women who do something different yet feel deeply disturbed with the turn of events. To run her living shabnam does zari-zardosi work and in the night from 9 pm till 1.30 she makes beedis so that she could earn some extra bucks to run her family. She works with a local nongovernmental organisation too but all this could not provide her a stable Rs 3,000 per month to run the family. It is tragic that such a hard working woman with great ideas has to suffer. The tension looks in her eyes. She is frustrated as nothing seems to be working at the moment. The art that we appreciate so much does not fetch her anything. Today, there are one thousand such zardosi workers in Fatehpur town and most of them living in deeply difficult situation. Life is virtual hell for them as they seem to have no way forward. They are destined to live in such inhuman condition. For the beautiful art work that they do on the salwar-kameez which might be appreciated at Delhi market as superb, these people get a meagre amount. They are able to complete the work in 4 days on a Kurta and that too not alone as other also support them but the returns are very low. It is rather unfortunate and exploitative that for this much of work a girl earns nearly Rs 40-60 per piece which is completed in four days. In a month period, most of them do not even earn Rs 400-500/-. The men have better chances as they are paid more but still their earning too is less than Rs 3,000 /- a month if everything goes fine and the work is regular. Last year, I was informed, that a majority of them suffered under the Chinese invasion. Most of the new work was coming from China virtually making these artisans workless but today the situation seems to change as the customers have realised that the hand work is much better in quality than the mechanical one. And therefore, this year there was more work though it too is seasonal. Shabanam want to unite the workers and start something for them. The frustration comes in hear heart and in her talks quite often. She is angry as nothing materialise here despite publication of articles and many people ‘photographing’ here. Newsmen come here and publish our stories in their newspapers but so far nothing has changed in their lives. The ‘developmental’ programmes have never reached pasmanda Muslims. They are virtually left out by the powerful leaders. None of these people have a BPL ration card even when most of them are living in abject poverty. Shabanam’s widowed mother has no pension, no other support. The family conditions forced Shabnam to apply for a job in the municipality but there too she was asked to pay Rs 70,000 as bribe for contract work which she was unable to pay. Shabanam moves around in Burqa but very confident of her own self as she is able to earn something but the anguish of having an elder sister who is not married yet and an old mother who does not get anything, reflects in her eyes. There is no fixed salary for her and earning even Rs 3,000 is a rare thing in today’s time. She mocks at the government schemes of pretending to provide support to people. ‘Where is the support’, she ask? We are not even asking government to pay us, all we want is a fair deal in creating these beautiful stuff. We all know that in the international market these things are sold at a very high price but we are unable to get anything. We suffer while making other joyous. While both men and women have faced tremendous pressure from the modern market here. She says, people appreciate art work and machine cannot really replace their art. But at the same point of time, people must pay for it. When I ask as why she has not been able to make a union of the people, she replies that now she is willing to work if people support the cause, she may take up. At the moment, she has her priorities to work for her family but definitely she does not want to sit silently and suffer. Most of the artisans cannot send their children to school as it is difficult to finish work on time and hence they engage their children too. There is no social security, health benefit and this art work actually affect their eye sight and beedi work makes them vulnerable to tuberculosis and breathing problems.They are always indebted and the contractors use it. Women are not able to go out and remain under tremendous social pressure. This work is seasonal and hence artisans remain workless for many months. The contractors do not pay on time and for many months. Their own money is treated as advance and used as a tool of exploitation. Shabanam’s eyes are asking various questions to me. But after hearing from many people she has this hope also that her voice and feeling will go to people who can think of saving this art. ‘Have you heard about Narega’, I ask. Yes, ‘ I know about it and they get Rs 100/- for their 8 hours work while we work to save this art and yet Rs 100 is a dream for us even in the three-four days. What an irony’, she says. I have refused to accept defeat even in the darkest hour of life as these circumstances are created by our society and apathy. Democracy does not mean anything to them as it failed to protect them. They do not even know whether they have rights to get a dignified return for their work. Those who fight in their names have failed to benefits as most of these war cry’s actually created leaders and do not really resolve the issues of the people. Travelling different parts of India and speaking to various path breakers such as Shabanam is always a refreshing experience that people are still hopeful and have that ability to live their life in happiness and whatever they possess. They are exploring new ways despite the marginalisation created by the system in the past so many years. They are hope of the country even in these hours of gloom that so-called liberalisation has brought in their lives. I have seen in the eyes of Shabanam the hope for future and the courage, which is essential in these moments of crisis. One is sincerely hoping that there will be people who will be able to support such initiatives which can bring cheers in the lives of these people, our own Zardosi workers, who makes our brides beautiful, our boys look handsome and have kept our art alive despite all their pains and troubles.

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