The past and the present live together in India


Laying in my king-sized bed in a 5 star hotel in Jaipur, I watched a short film on the crisis in rural India. One scene, repeated several times, showed a woman in a saree walking through a green field gently touching her waist high crop. I thought this was a romantic representation. About 16 hours later, I am on a train from Jaipur to Kota and through the window I see a woman in a saree walking slowly through a green waist high crop. Too far away to see if there was a caress.

Mountains in the far distance, highways and trucks in the background and farmland in the foreground. Two-wheelers (Indian for all motorcycles and scooters) race through villages. A small temple sits along the road. A couple, I can safely assume wife and husband, gather what looks to me (city kid) like wheat or hay tied into bundles just smaller than they are. Gray 4×4 squares of something that looks like canvas are laid out through several fields apparently to dry. Stopping at a rural train station, men make cement by hand with hoes. My father did this in the early 1950s when he rebuilt the wall in front of our house. But he had a wheelbarrow and a hose. These men have a pile in the dirt and pans of water that they bring from a nearby creek.

And the present? I just watched a young lesbian walk through this same train station. No doubt about it—baby dyke in a plaid shirt, tight jeans, short hair. Brave young woman.

Riding through the middle of the tourist city of Jaipur a couple of days ago, we passed several two wheeled carts full of sand pulled by camels. The drivers wore traditional lungis and the workers’ casual turban. In the rural areas, camels are common.

Cows are not everywhere, but they may appear anywhere. They are not tied or fenced. They are just among us. Goats are less common, probably because people are allowed to eat them. Cows are “sacred” and the hint or rumor of “cow slaughter” brings out the raging Hindu religious fundamentalists. There was a riot yesterday, suppressed only when it was proven that the dead calf died of natural causes.


Picture the fallen leaves of fall in New England as bleached and shiny plastic. My friend Veena, who grew up here, left at 20 and has returned, blames packaging. It has always been a take-away society. People eat on the street and buy their food in small lots from many vendors. But Veena says that things used to come in natural containers, plant leaves, or paper. Now small bags of many kinds of chips and other commercial snacks are sold on every street and the bags are thrown on the local pile where the wind, the dogs and the cows distribute them to gutters and corners. I asked Amit why there is no waste management and he said that there is indeed a Minister of Waste Management. I said he should be fired and Amit said that I should have seen it before. The trash is much less, he says. I am glad I am here now and not then.

There is a place where there is not trash. The poorest of the poor illegally cultivate plots along the railroad tracks. They eat some and sell most. These plots are free of trash and carefully maintained. I think the trash is not a people problem. It is a government problem.


This is my heresy. I do not love the cherished and much lauded Indian Railway System. Not that I wouldn’t agree that it is an authentic and efficient way to see India. I sit on a train now across from a single man. Across the aisle, a woman by herself has finished eating and is napping in her bunk. A couple and two kids are in the other bunks, mom and youngest—with a terrible cough, god help me—in the lower bunk. Dad and the older, about 6, on the top bunk. Vendors walk the aisles selling chai, sandwiches, those ubiquitous chips, and chains with which to lock up luggage.

The problem is not being on the train; it is getting on the train. My first trip was easy and that lulled me into a false sense of competence. Second trip, I discovered at 10 PM that I did not actually have a ticket. I was on the dreaded Waiting List. Too late, I discovered that the WL the top of my apparent ticket meant it was not a ticket at all. Stuck in Ahmedabad, I went back to the hotel and flew home the next morning. This trip, Jaipur to Kota, I had a ticket and I had it all figured out. The concierge at the hotel told me I did not need to take the 45-minute cab ride all the way to the central station. The train would stop for 2 minutes right down the street from the hotel—a Rs 40 tuk tuk ride. That is about 6 cents. Luckily, I panicked and decided I should spend the money and go to the central station because I got there and could not find my printed ticket and you cannot board an Indian train without a printed ticket—in a country where no one has a printer and everything is done by phone. I had time to find the Tourist Desk and a nice group of three people printed my ticket for me.

Next step is getting out of Kota on Tuesday. I am on two Waiting Lists– #1 on the train I really don’t want and #5 on the one I do. My new friends at the Tourist Desk in Jaipur said I have a “99.9% chance” of getting both tickets. Then the trick is canceling one in time so that I am not charged for both tickets. After this trip, I may be trading the authentic experience for less stress and flying.

My research

The five-day Fulbright conference in Jaipur—all expenses paid—was a great mid-trip opportunity to present an interim report on my research and to talk to the other Fulbrighters about their research and mine. I stayed in the fancy hotel an additional three nights because the construction union conference I am attending in Kota is only three hours away and it did not make sense to go all the way back to my home in Mumbai only to return to Rajasthan. I had time to think and reflect.

My mind has been a muddle with all I have learned, with both the impossibility and the inappropriateness of drawing conclusions (“the white lady becomes an expert in 6 weeks”) and with the isolation of doing this by myself. I am a Participatory Researcher. This has several key meanings for me. First, my work must be “of use.” It must be designed and carried out with purpose and the intent of improving the conditions of workers and promoting greater equality and justice. The knowledge generated in Participatory Research is collective. My role as the Researcher is to provide a theoretical framework, synthesize the knowledge of Participants, to reflect it back to then for validation and to document our collective findings.

I love this process. I love seeing the patterns in how activists describe their work and being one of those charged with pointing to the patterns. I love listening to the chaos of people passionate about justice and asking questions that move them to organize the chaos into a new strategy. I love the responsibility of collecting the new knowledge and making lessons learned more permanent.

This has been a lonely project, but, with some conversations and reflective time, I have started to organize what I am learning. The lives of women working in the construction industry in India are desperate. The women are poor, they are at the bottom of all the Indian hierarchies of caste, region, religion and gender. They are married mothers working too long under terrible conditions with no opportunities to improve their lives. I have seen it and the women have told me so. There are two openings for change, training in higher skilled work and the presence of mobile creches (child care facilities) on a very few construction sites in three of the major cities. These are the two openings that Liz, Vivian and Connie brought home from Beijing in 1995 (see the Fulbright proposal on my home page for the history of this project and its origins in Beijing) and they have been the major focus of my fieldwork since I have been here. My emphasis has been on the training because that is my bias. Let’s get these women trained up and into better jobs. But it is clear that there are not really any good jobs in construction in India and that, if there were, gender bias is so strong that women will not soon be moving into them. And my biases have led me to underplay the importance of the mobile creche movement. It is a service based on motherhood. As a feminist, I am averse to defining women through reproductive work and biological determinants. I am a modern woman and – it came to me at about 7 am Saturday—I am making a modern error.

The mobile creche movement in India is a movement. It is women—cross class and in the absence of male support of any kind—organizing themselves to meet a basic need, the need for women working in construction to know that their children are safe while they are working. One the ground and right in front of me, it is a pipeline to literacy and education for the girl and boy children of today’s Indian women working in construction. There is even an unenforced law that says there will be creches on construction sites with 50 or more women workers (so they keep it to 49, of course) and this law has a mechanism for funding the creches. Most important for the future of this project and the plan to bring a delegation of tradeswomen and advocates to India in March 2017, India’s movement for child care for construction works may be small but they have one. In the US, we have talked about this issue for almost 40 years without making any progress. India has something to teach us.

So I am going back to many of my interviewees and asking more questions about the mobile creche movement. What can we in the US tradeswomen’s movement learn from you? What are the obstacles to making the creches more widely available to Indian workers? Who are the allies? What are the plans for the future? Will you assist in hosting the delegation from the US next year?

Postscript: That was yesterday. I spent today in a meeting of the Women’s Committee of the Builders and Woodworkers International Indian affiliates. All day was about getting training for women working as construction laborers so they can upgrade their skills and increase their wages. So there is a movement for training. I was able to contribute my findings that these are not just women workers; they are ALL working mothers who are responsible for 100% of the very labor intensive household work of poor women in India. They do not have time for training. Ellina Samentroy at VV GIRI Labor Institute in Noida brought the level of women’s uncounted labor to my attention weeks ago. To paraphrase Einstein, labor that is uncounted still counts. My findings made sense to the Women’s Committee members who then engaged in table discussions and flipchart report backs that would have made the union women of WILD feel right at home.

Tomorrow is the union meeting that is NOT the women’s committee. We will see. Then back home to Mumbai on a overnight train tomorrow night….I hope. I actually do not have that ticket yet, but that is another story for another time.

Love and peace to all.

About susanmoir2015

Researcher, feminist, labor activist.
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5 Responses to The past and the present live together in India

  1. Sara Driscoll says:

    Just wonderful insights and lessons, Susan….thanks!


  2. tradeswomn says:

    Susan, I’ve been seeing Facebook posts, but confess I just found your blog. Thanks for these insightful and informative essays! It might take some time for me to read and digest them all.


  3. Intense reading next time when u r in Pune I will introduce u to NGOs n women from our background who r doing a lot of work setting up mobile crèches n schools for kids whose mothers work on construction sites.


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