i will be master of what is mine own;
She is my goods, my chattel; she is my house,
My household stuff, my field, my barn,
My horse, my ox, my ass, my anything;
And here she stands, touch her whoever dare.
– William Shakespeare, English dramatic poet (1564-1616) in Taming of the Shrew.
In the aftermath of the tragic air crash at Bajpe airport, near Mangalore, when the dust settled and grief subsided, the current topic of concern is the compensation for heirs of the dead and injured. One thing stood out like a sore thumb. Those who did not have a proper job, with an appointment or promotion letter or monthly salary slip, would lose out in the compensation game. This mainly includes housewives who had gone to the Gulf for a holiday or to look after their working husbands. They have no salary slips and their work is not monetized. As an anonymous epigram says, “Housework is what a woman does that nobody ever notices unless she doesn’t do it”.
O opportunity, thy guilt is great!
‘Tis thou that executest the traitor’s treason;
Thou set’st the wolf where he the lambs may get;
Whoever plots the sin, thou ’point’st the season;
‘Tis thou that spurn’st at right, at law, at reason.
It is again Shakespeare, in The Rape of Lucrece, hinting at the dark side of opportunity. Some see opportunity in the distress of others. Like vultures swooping down on rotting carcass, ambulance-chasing American lawyers, with opportunistic lawyers from Bombay in tow, have descended on the kin of Mangalore crash victims offering enhanced compensation, through court action, for hefty cut in the booty, if they are allowed to process their cases. At the heart of their temptation are housewives without any documents to prove their earnings or potential. This is all because there have been no computations of prospective earnings of the back-breaking work done by housewives, without any limits on working hours. Now the Supreme Court of India has entered the scene and has frowned on this deficiency and has asked the government to remedy the situation through laws and rules in this regard. First, the facts of the case.
In the case that provoked the Supreme Court to pass the judgment, appellant Arun Kumar’s wife Renu Agarwal died, aged 39, in a road accident in Uttar Pradesh. The Motor Accidents Claims Tribunal awarded Rs.2,5 lakh in compensation and the Allahabad High Court confirmed this order by dismissing the appeal. The SC appeal was directed against the judgment. The court allowed the appeal and enhanced the compensation to Rs.6 lakh with a 6 per cent interest from the date of filing of the petition till the date of payment, which should be made within three months. The court also awarded the appellant Rs.50, 000 in costs. More than the specific relief to appellant, the judgment per se, excerpted below, has far-reaching implications.
Holding that the valuation of the income of the homemaker as one-third of the of the income of the earning spouse is not rational while computing compensation in cases of motor accidents claims, the Supreme Court has asked Parliament to revisit the provisions to the value the services of homemakers properly. A Bench of Justices G.S. Singhvi and A.K. Ganguly, in separate but concurring judgments, on July 22, 2010 expressed anguish that despite a clear constitutional mandate from Article 15 (1) to eschew discrimination on grounds of sex, there was a distinct gender bias against women, in the implementation, and various welfare legislation and judicial pronouncements.
“The time has come for Parliament to have a rethink on properly assessing the value of homemaker’s and householders’ work and suitably amending the provisions of the Motor Vehicles Act and other related laws for giving compensation when the victim is women and homemakers. Amendments to matrimonial laws may also be made in order to give effect to the mandate to Article 15 (1) of the Constitution,” the Bench said. “ Women are generally engaged to homemaking, bringing up children and also in production of goods and services which are not sold in market but are consumed at the household level.
Thus, the work of women mostly goes unrecognized, and they are never valued.” He said the bias against women was shockingly in the work of the census. “In the census of 2001, it appears that those who are doing household duties such as cooking, cleaning of utensils, looking after children, fetching water and firewood have been categorized as non-workers and equated with beggars, prostitutes and prisoners who, according to the census, are not engaged in economically productive work. This approach of equating women, who are homemakers, with beggars, prostitutes and prisoners as economically non-productive workers betrays a totally insensitive and callous approach to the dignity of labour so far as women are concerned, and is indicative of a strong gender bias against women.”
Justice Ganguly said: “Though the census operation does not call for consideration in this case, but reference to the same has been made to show the strong bias shown against women and their work. We hope and trust in the on-going census operation, this will be corrected. Lack of sensitiveness and recognition of their work mainly contributes to women’s high rate of poverty and their consequential oppression in society, as well as various physical, social and psychological problems. Courts and tribunals should do well to factor in these considerations while assessing compensation for housewives who are victims of road accidents and quantifying the amount in the name of fixing ‘just compensation’.”
In this concurring judgment, Justice Singhvi said: “It is highly unfair, unjust and inappropriate to compute the compensation payable to the dependants of the deceased wife/mother, who does not have regular income, by comparing her services with that of a housekeeper or servant or an employee who works for a fixed period. The gratuitous services rendered by wife/mother to the husband and children cannot be equated with the services of an employee, and no evidence or data can possibly be produced for estimating the value of such services.”
Women, as housewives have been lulled into complacency by flattering references to them like behind every successful man there is a woman. John Milton, English writer (1608-1674), for instance, said :
Nothing lovelier can be found
In women, than study household good
And good works in her husband to promote.
Even Shakespeare has a take on the status, or lack of it, of housewives in Othello:
You are pictures out of doors,
Bells in your parlours, wild-cats in your kitchens,
Saints in your injuries, devils being offended,
Players in your housewifery, and housewives in your beds.
If you think that these are foreign perception of women or housewives, this quotation from Thomas Munro (later Sir) in a dispatch as administrator in the Salem region (circa1792) to the Madras headquarters of East India Company, on the reasons why some could not pay land tax is a pointer: “… a third tells me that he cannot afford to pay his usual rent because his wife is dead; she used to do more work than his best bullock”. Nowadays, the comparison is to a donkey or a mule – the beast of burden with empty upper storey. The ransom of young brides, dowry, is widely discussed and computed. But, no one has stopped to think of their silent contribution, as housewives, to the success of the family and homestead.
But, the question of pricing services was perhaps first raised by Thomas Hobbes, English philosopher and writer (1588-1679): “The ‘value’ or ‘worth’ of a man is, as of all other things, his price; that is to say, so much as would be given for the use of his power. “ And man used his power to use women for free. And they mocked at the helplessness of women in the face of power, as noted by George Crabbe, English poet (1754-1832):
Oh! t’is a precious thing when wives are dead,
To find such numbers who will serve instead:
And in whatever state a man be thrown,
‘Tis that capacity they would wish their own.
According to a report in London Times (March 15, 1807), Sir Robert Walpole, English statesman, speaking in the House of Commons, said: “I know the price of every man in this House except three”. That was in the context of corruption. Do we know the price of our housewives? Shouldn’t they put a price on themselves as the doctors, lawyers and chartered accountants do? They should rise in revolt as they have nothing to lose except mops, brooms and rolling pins. As Milton would have said, “Awake, arise or be forever (remain) fallen!”