What’s the most throbbing problem of urban India?

Traffic woes? Rising food prices? Bad infrastructure?

Yes to all, but the one single issue that has the power to shake up a family is the lack of reliable domestic help. It makes one question one’s life choices about pursuing a career, living in a certain town where there’s no family support or even having another child. It is a problem that reduces attendance in offices, affects productivity and, I am willing to bet, even increases the drop rate of trained women from the workforce.

Most nuclear families rely on what are called domestic placement agencies, a thriving cottage industry that is entirely unregulated. A few agencies have registered themselves, but function with as much impunity as those that haven’t. The modus operandi is that a couple of shady people do some body shopping by sourcing young girls from deprived backgrounds in the tribal forests of Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh, the hills of Nepal or the interiors of West Bengal. Middlemen travel to the hinterland, deep into the other India that readers like you will barely be aware of, and carry a recruitment drive that bears uncomfortable resemblance to the theme of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. A bunch of these exploited girls arrive at the “office" of the agency, which is an ever-shifting address that could even disappear overnight, and are then allotted to different homes, starting with who is most desperate and hence can be fleeced the most. Demand always exceeds supply, so it is a perennial high season for the business.

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There is no one doing a background check on who can start such a service. One of the first agencies I met was Priya Domestic Services in south Delhi, headed by an unctuous, henchman lookalike called Dabbu Gupta who strung me along for a bit promising maids who never turned up. I called him again a few months later to fix another crisis. That’s when I learnt he had been shot while going to Jaipur, apparently by a rival on whom Dabbu had blown the whistle for running a flesh trade under the guise of a domestic maid agency. It isn’t often that you call someone and find he’s been murdered in the interim, so I was shaken by the thought that these are the kind of people we are relying on to look after our most precious possessions—our home and children.

I doubt there is any other transaction where the seller can default so easily on the commitment made in the beginning. Three replacements are to be provided in the year, if required, as per the piece of paper that a client signs while forking out the commission of 15,000-20,000, at the start of this fraught relationship. I would like to be proved wrong on this, but I am sure this has never been honoured by any agency. This month Sapna Desai, an advertising professional in Gurgaon, had a harrowing time juggling work and two young children when the agency didn’t provide a replacement for a maid who quit. In just 15 days, she has transacted with four agencies in a bid to find a stable, viable option.

It could well be my story at various points in the past few years. In end 2009, the owner of Saroj Placement Services—address unknown now—staged the escape of the cheerful Oriya girl who worked for us, so that she could be placed for a fat, new commission elsewhere. The previous year, Shanti, whom the kids adored and she seemed to as well, got a call and came to me in tears saying her mom was seriously ill back in Jharkhand. I arranged for money and her brother came to pick her up along with the agency owner. That week, I kept asking the agency owner how she was doing, until he got tired of my naivety and confessed that the man who fetched her was her lover, not brother, and they had all plotted her exit, because Shanti was tired and no longer wanted to work. Of course, no replacements were currently available.

The next mission impossible is to get the money back. Sapna Desai filed an FIR and still got less than she should have, because the agency goons cited various service charges and commissions. I have forfeited a few thousand rupees either out of sheer fatigue of following up or because phone numbers have been changed and the owner is untraceable.

The girls themselves are drifters, not intent on making money or finding long-term employment. They seize the opportunity that the middlemen offer and come into our homes, viewing it as temporary break from the poverty and oppression back home. There’s a vast cultural gap between life deep in the forests and in middle class homes. Soon they feel alienated and search for stability in the big, bad city in the only way they know—find an earning partner. Dramatic love sagas ensue, many of which lead to messy episodes of heartbreak. It’s a desperate life.

Ironically, it is also desperation which drives the families who hire them. The helplessness when the nanny quits suddenly and a busy working week looms ahead for two professionals causes us to dial the nearest agency which claims to have a solution. We know the risks, we know it never works out, but we don’t have a choice. Life would be easier in this regard in Singapore, where the Consumer Association has set up a mandatory accreditation scheme to ensure that maid agencies maintain acceptable ethical and professional standards. Accredited maid agencies are assessed for fair-trading practices, maid-recruitment procedures and after-placement services by the ministry of manpower and listed on the ministry’s website. Complaints of malpracticing agencies can be submitted to the ministry online. Without this kind of intervention in India, we are at the mercy of near-criminals who make a fast buck by exploiting two desperate parties.

Vandana Vasudevan writes stories of mass urban consumer experiences. She is a graduate from the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, and currently works with HT Media Ltd. Comment at toughcustomer@livemint.com