Upward Futility – The ‘Servant Class’ and Everyday Forms of Discrimination: Joyeeta Dey

This is a guest post by JOYEETA DEY

Clubs in Delhi bar ayahs from from common spaces. It is not uncommon to find employers tacitly or overtly restricting domestic workers’ access to their toilets. In some multi-storey apartments, the refusal to share space extends even to elevators.

Such indignities constitute acts of “gratuitous humiliation,” according to Delhi School of Economics sociologist Satish Deshpande. Think of it this way. Police officers and auto drivers wear uniforms, which separate them out from the public. This serves a purpose because the ability to identify them has direct bearing on the execution of their duties and the provision of services. With domestic staff and lifts? No such need is satisfied. “There is no justification for it,” Deshpande suspects, “other than the fact that affluent, upper-caste people cannot tolerate proximity with those whom they consider their social inferiors.”

Naturally, it would be hard to find segregators admitting as much, on the record.

So, what do they say?

“The foremost reason is security.”

The threat to safety posed by workers is alive in the minds of middle-class residents, stoked by sensational media accounts of trusted domestic help taking to murder. The segregation that is demanded for self-protection involves house-owners classifying themselves as ‘victims’ and the household help as potential ‘aggressors.’ Interesting, given the enormous evidence that demonstrates the country-wide prevalence of sexual abuse endured by maids at the hands of their employers. Nonetheless, what precise benefit to residents’ safety restricting staff access to such facilities provides is curious when these apartment buildings already have guards at entry points and often CCTV cameras in the lifts.

Let’s take another, then.

Rama Broker, 65, who stays on the ninth floor, said vendors, delivery boys, washer-men and workers visited the building regularly. “If all elevators are allowed to be used by all and sundry, there are chances that the visitors, guests or owners will have to wait. So what if there is a separate provision? This makes things easier for all,” she said.

Dipak Chalakkal, an IIM-C graduate who has worked on operations management, deflates the other commonly made argument about efficiency, using elementary queuing theory concepts. “In a segregated system, the group which has greater numbers or makes more ‘calls’ on the lift, waits more,” he wrote via email. “If, as claimed, there are more workers than residents, then the workers wait more. Assuming everyone’s time is of equal value, this cannot be called more efficient.” He goes on to add that if heightened efficiency is really the goal, there are other more humane ways to achieve this, such as having one lift to cater to the lower half of a building and one lift to cater to the upper half, as in high-rises otherwise the lifts get too full by the time they come down.

 Anthropologist Sara Dickey, who works on class identity in urban South India understand employers ‘attempts to control servants actions both inside and outside the employers home’ as a manifestation of the classic anxiety of trying to maintain class distance in spite of a degree of ’emotional and spatial intimacy‘. Oliver D’Souza, editor of Dalit Cry, and award-winning writer, takes this argument further to claim that since for all practical purposes most domestic workers in this country are from lower castes, a caste discrimination angle could be at work here. This isn’t terribly far-fetched. After all, the history of the service elevator has been marked by discrimination in several societies, as richly documented in Andreas Bernard’s book, Lifted: A Cultural History of Elevators. The reasons cited for banning staff entry to residents elevators here — “crowding” — clearly echo the rhetoric behind racial segregation in elevators.

Yet, for those who feel any indignation against such segregation, the path to resistance is difficult. As Mallika, a spokesperson from the domestic labour NGO Parichiti in West Bengal, described in a phone interview, there is low consciousness amongst workers that this could be a further indignity heaped upon them. Without this realization, it is hard to challenge such rules. Even among those workers who resent such rules, there are many bigger battles in a country which doesn’t recognize domestic labourers as workers. In the absence of such recognition, most states don’t provide essential safeguards against exploitation such as ensuring minimum wage; such symptoms of inequality get pushed, in turn, to the backburner. Therefore, in the fight for dignity of domestic labour, everyday forms of discrimination which pass under most people’s radar as they have become so normal, needs to be brought on the agenda.

Taking recourse to the law wouldn’t seem to provide a sure footing, as one would surely face arguments of autonomy in private spaces. So far, most similar discrimination cases have dealt with religious sites, such as temples and dargahs. But some lawyers claim a case could be made on grounds of caste-based discrimination, under the Prevention of Atrocities Act. The media, meanwhile, is already covering the issue, if sporadically. But for those who live in the apartments where such rules are implemented, housing societies usually have society meetings where common concerns are discussed. Attending those meetings, registering dissent, and foregoing one’s own access to the “residents’ lifts” are essential first steps.

[Joyeeta Dey is a researcher at Pratichi Institute]

4 thoughts on “Upward Futility – The ‘Servant Class’ and Everyday Forms of Discrimination: Joyeeta Dey”

  1. thanks for the very good article. I work for an organisation and we have a flat near our office in Bangalore. Once I was going with our driver, the security person said, if am the owner of the flat can use the lift. or visitors can use the lift but not others? ‘means?’ I asked. Security person said, if we are servants or maintenance personnel we are not allowed to use the lift. then our administrative office spoke to the what ever committee they call themselves( that committee claiming that they are for the welfare of they residents about all people in the organisation will use the lift. For my surprise at that time the key person for this committee was a worker in Leela Palace Hotel in Bangalore. some time it is interesting to observe the thinking of people. What is mentioned in the article is absolutely true that we are keeping all type of discrimination and some time also added to the age old list!


  2. It is not just a ‘servent’ class, but most of the ‘oppressed lower caste/classes’ have the same state in this divisive social hierarchy. The unfortunate part is that there has been little effort in either understanding or analysing the gravity of the problem. The solution is a far cry.


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