Seeing Jyothi’s life brought home to me how different life is on the margins, away from the privilege I enjoy.

Pregnant and living in an ash dump how 21-yr-old Jyothi holds a mirror to our lives
Voices Blog Saturday, December 09, 2017 - 11:41

Birthdays, coming of age, legal drinking – adulthood. If you’re reading this on your laptop/smartphone screen, you might relate to this description of turning 21 years old.

I turned 21 recently. It’s a great life, when at this ‘turning point’ of your existence, you’re expected to get hammered and not remember much. Of course, there’s also that collective voice of parents, aunts, siblings, older friends, and sundry others telling you to be responsible, mature, money-wise and what not. 

As Atlas-esque as these “adulting” burdens might seem, many of us remain oblivious to the gruelling, vastly different experiences of other 21-year-olds in India.

I met Jyothi* at her workplace. “Day after tomorrow, I enter the eighth month of my pregnancy,” she said. We sat on a bund that played the role of boundary wall to a colossal lake. Stretched across 300 acres, the lake is filled with white-grey coal ash instead of water. This is the waste from the 1500 MW Vallur thermal power plant operated by the NTPC Tamil Nadu Energy Company Limited (NTECL) since 2012 in Ennore.

A man’s shirt over her saree, towel and metal bowl atop her head, Jyothi’s job was to carry coal ash from one end of the ash pond’s bund to the other. I could not get over the fact that this young woman was pregnant, married and 21 years old.

Life in an ash dump

Kuruvimedu is a small village that abuts the Vallur Thermal Power Station in Ennore, Tamil Nadu. Wedged between a power plant and its ash pond, Kuruvimedu is not a healthy place to live or work in.

I met Jyothi for the first time at a health camp I helped conduct at Kuruvimedu. The medical camp had confirmed residents' vehement complaints of pollution-related ill health. Kuruvimedu residents have, of late, been demanding relocation to a site away from the toxic ash pond.

Jyothi on the other hand, followed her husband Sundar* and left her home in Vadapalle near Kurnool in Andhra Pradesh, to come live and work inside the ash dump. Her school-going son is in Kurnool with her in-laws.

Sundar’s cousin Madhu*, told them about work in the NTECL’s ash dump two years ago. They have worked here ever since. Work begins at 6am and goes on till 6pm, six days a week. Sundays are half days. Salaries are paid on a monthly basis. Jyothi’s salary is given to Sundar. Pointing to another woman busy laying bricks, she said, “Unmarried women are handed their salaries directly; mine is given to my husband.”

Before she got married – when she should have been in school – Jyothi had worked as a labourer on a farm in Kurnool. She picked vegetables and helped load the harvest. The land she toiled on was not hers.

“Which job was harder? Which one did you prefer?” I asked trying to suss out if she was happier here or there. “I feel no difference. Either way, I'm working only,” she replied tersely. “What's tough and what's not... I don't have any preference,” she said with a resigned smile.

As we talked, I tried to get a sense of what it was like to be Jyothi. But as Arundhati Roy wrote, “Can poverty be simulated? Poverty is not just a question of having no money or no possessions, but about having no power...” Was there any way I would ever truly understand “a day in the life of Jyothi?”, I wondered.

I pointed to the ash pond, and asked her “What do you see here? What is this all around you?” After a pause, she said “Jeshtu,” the colloquial Telugu word for “waste.” She knew her job entailed handling some sort of waste. But she has never asked questions about it. “I have never been interested to know,” she says.

Maternity on the margins

I could not help wonder, pregnant and working in a toxic ash dump, was Jyothi at least getting her regular monthly medical check-ups? She didn't seem too concerned. “I have been to the doctor in Minjoor once since I got pregnant,” she said.

In May this year, amendments were made to the Maternity Benefit Act, 1961. National dailies carried headlines full of pride celebrating India’s entry into the club of 16 countries to have the maximum paid leave for new mothers.

But that, it appears, is not for all new mothers. Jyothi’s job pays the bare minimum wages. There is no maternity leave, no guarantee of post-pregnancy job security, no health benefits, no insurance and no contract. All this is happening in the shadow of the cash-rich public sector NTPC whose waste Jyothi handles.

The law is clear on medical benefits that employers are obliged to offer pregnant women work that is not arduous or requiring long hours of standing or “which in any way is likely to interfere with her pregnancy or the normal development of the foetus.” The law entitles every pregnant woman to maternity benefit, which also includes a medical bonus of Rs 250 if no prenatal or postnatal care is provided free of charge by her employer.

But that's just the law. Here was 21-year-old Jyothi. 8 months pregnant, doing 12 hours of backbreaking work every day, exposed to the hot sun and poisonous dust. With no record of employment. No proof that she works in the dump or that there is an employer. Nothing that connects her employer to the Maharatna NTPC.

My mind refused to accept Jyothi’s life the way she seemed to have accepted it. I kept prying, to find out if she really liked what she was doing, if she'd rather be doing something else. There was an unnerving simplicity about Jyothi’s answers, which reflected on a much larger simplicity of her views on life itself. Sample this exchange:

“Me: Why did you have to come here to work?

Jyothi: Because Sundar asked me to. He said there was work and we both came. If I did not come here, I would have continued with my old work there.

Me: So, do you like cooking more, coming to work or sleeping at home? What do you like doing the most?

She: I like to come work. If I work, I get money. If I sit at home, I don’t... So, I like work.”

Being a 21-year-old woman in a position of relative privilege makes it difficult for me to reiterate the underlying implications of her statements without direct quotation. A lot of our conversation only strengthened the notion that the premise of all oppression Jyothi faces is intersectional – patriarchy, caste discrimination, environmental racism and class oppression. To Jyothi however, her life was not defined – and neither was she – by the systemic biases in place against her. She worked to feed herself and fed herself to be able to work.

I once heard P Sainath talk on ‘Deprivation in India’, and heard many eye-opening statistics and on the very real, extreme rich-poor divide in India. One of those kept coming back to me. “The top 1% of India’s population owns 58% of all of its household wealth. Within that 1%, 0.1% of the people own the biggest bulk of the big bulk.” 

I believed Sainath when he said it. But it was only after meeting Jyothi that I understood what he meant. Based on the conversation we had, Jyothi did not have notions of likes, dislikes or preferences. I had barged into her life that day, and asked her questions about perspectives she did not seem to have even thought about before. The rich-poor divide was real.  

*Names changed to protect privacy.

(Courtesy for all images: Sehr Raheja)

Sehr Raheja is a Chennai-based campaigner with the Healthy Energy Initiative, India.

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