Vijayamma is the sole earner in her family right now. A widow, she lives with her son, daughter-in-law and their two-year-old child. Her son, an autorickshaw driver, has been out of work since late March. “I want to get back to work, but even though the family I work for want me to come back, the apartment security is not letting me in," she says on the phone.
Meanwhile, residents of apartment complexes face a different crisis. To 35-year-old SN, who lives in an apartment complex in Bengaluru's Indiranagar area, the Residents Welfare Association’s (RWA) ban on the entry of domestic help, even as the government has eased lockdown rules and offices have been allowed to operate with reduced capacity, feels arbitrary and unfair.
A communications manager with a tech firm and mother to a 5-year-old, SN was supposed to get back to work this week, but unless her nanny is allowed in, she doesn’t know how it will work out. “My husband is working from home but he has calls and meetings through the day—it’s not possible for him to keep an eye on our daughter, prepare her meals and keep her engaged. We need another adult in the house, but the association is simply not budging," says SN.
Fear, confusion, and a 'no-risks' attitude
This is a common scenario across residential complexes in India right now. Furious debates rage on, with residents and RWAs locked in a seemingly endless loop of negotiations over the entry of domestic help. While the May 3 announcement from the Central government laying down guidelines for the next couple of weeks doesn’t clearly mention whether household help will be allowed to go back to work, it doesn’t disallow it either.
The rules state that anything not explicitly prohibited in the guidelines should be considered as "allowed" and gives the go-ahead for free movement of people between 7 am and 7 pm. Technically, this means there is nothing to stop domestic help from coming back to work—except RWAs and residential neighbourhood committees. As Indian Express noted, the Centre’s guidelines on this are clear, and no state has so far specifically ordered that domestic workers be kept out, the only exceptions being containment zones within the red zones, which includes most Indian metros.
However, fear and confusion over the rules, and a take-no-risk attitude seem to be ruling resident WhatsApp groups across the country, with many RWAs choosing to err on the side of caution.
"Regarding house help, we have not got any directive from the local administration as of now. After every lockdown, the Assistant Commissioner of Police (ACP) or Station House Officer (SHO) would share guidelines for the movement of the domestic help. In lockdown 3.0, these have not been shared as yet. One of our members called the additional commissioner about it and was told that we have to stay with the existing guidelines to not let the part-time help in. But as and when any new guidelines come in, we may change the stance," said Mayank Arya, secretary, RWA, BPTP apartment complex, Sector 57, Gurgaon.
Ankit Parikh, secretary of a housing society in Vile Parle, Mumbai, reveals a similar situation. “Even though we're allowed to move in and out, we're trying to reduce contact to a minimum. Domestic help and housekeeping staff are ready to come and work but we're stopping them. Some residents have protested against it. For some, we've offered to let the help come in on the condition that they stay with them in the house until the lockdown in Mumbai is lifted. When it does, the virus will still be around for a few months. So we're arranging for sanitizers and thermometers for all entering the society after," says Parikh.
It must be noted, however, that the street next to this apartment building has been declared a containment zone, justifying the need for extra caution—which is not the case in the Bengaluru and Gurgaon areas where Lounge spoke to residents.
The best-case scenario
In some cases, societies are willing to relax the rules, but only after protracted negotiations and only if a substantial number of residents make the demand and volunteer to enforce strict protocols for the entry of domestic help.
Salarpuria Silverwoods, a gated community of over 300 flats in Bengaluru’s Indiranagar, has allowed the entry of maids from 4 May after putting certain rules in place. “With effect from 05-05-20 every household will be allowed one house help (you can choose from amongst your nanny, maid, personal attendant or cook). The Help chosen can be allowed only if the help is already registered with the Association as on date as your house help. No new Person can be engaged. The Help permitted under pt.1 above is barred from changing households during the lockdown period. They will be allowed only one entry and exit per day to/fro Silverwoods between the permitted hours of 7am to 7 pm. Once exited will not be allowed to re-enter for the same day," says an official communication from the RWA to residents shared on 4 May.
The association also shared a self-declaration form with residents who want the entry of their domestic help, stating that “their help is not suffering from any illness connected with Covid-19, are not living in any area categorised as ‘Containment Zone’ and further ensure that they observe both inside Silverwoods as well as outside all social distancing norms, personal hygiene, etc and always wear a clean mask. They should also download the ‘Arogya Setu’ App and update their particulars there-in." Workers will also be screened at the gate using thermal scanners.
“We decided to allow domestic help within limits because we felt there was a genuine need from two categories of residents: parents of small children where both parents are working and elderly residents living alone. And we realised that doing so now, when many residents are voluntarily foregoing help due to caution or other reasons, is better because our security team gets used to the new protocol while the numbers are still manageable," N Sivasankaran, president of the apartment residents’ association, said.
'If it bothered male RWA members, they would find a solution'
One of the subtexts of the debate is the fact that most RWAs are made of male residents, with low female representation, and it is mostly women demanding the re-entry of domestic workers—understandably because they shoulder a disproportionate amount of domestic work in the absence of hired help.
As many women start to go back to work, they are naturally incensed with RWAs that don’t seem to be sensitive to their realities—in fact, sexist jokes about how dependent women are on their bais and maids have started doing the rounds with renewed vigour.
“I’m pretty sure if the managing committee members were facing the kind of stress I am in, with juggling work and a household with a small child, they would relent quickly and find a way to make this happen. Right now, they can’t be bothered because it’s not affecting their lives much," says SN.
(With inputs from Omkar Khandekar and Avantika Bhuyan)