Women & Empowerment

When I decided to visit India this last summer my clear objective, besides reconnecting with my family and roots, was to spend some time looking at the problems relating to children growing in the second most populous country of the world and co-incidentally look at the life of a family to see what kind of strategies the parents and other elders, among the poor, may be using to try and improve the future prospects of children. In sum, I wanted to get a sense of the family dynamic that is so fundamental to integrated and wholesome child development.

While to study the children’s issues I volunteered at ——— Chandigarh. I also was able to have the opportunity to learn about status of women in the Indian society by one on one conversations with —————, an eminent ———.

Looking at the enormity of problems that the highly populous and developing societies are trying to tackle in their quest for development, I began to recognize the importance of motivation and aspirations of women to improve their and their family’s lot, as a critical imperative to propel the families on a path of progress.

My search fortunately led me to meet a woman who to me seemed to be determined to transform her own life but much more that of her children even though caught in the web of poverty and lack of education endemic among the poor in India. I want to share her story as an example of a woman overcoming difficulties most find insurmountable without structured societal support and carving out her own destiny. Interestingly she did it as her understanding of shared responsibility in family setting and not to assert her sense of empowerment.


The name of our main actor is Pinky Roy [nee Gondhar]. She is around 31 years of age and was married when still not 16, in 2000 to Sukh Lal Roy, age 34. They have two daughters – Chandni, born 2ooo and Naina, born 2008.

Pinky’s grandparents were displaced persons from East Bengal who moved to Chandrapur in the State of Maharashtra, when British India was partitioned in 1947. The family started out as farm labor. Her father Sukumar Gondhar had in time acquired about 3 acres of farmland that he had given on tenancy, receiving 1/4th of produce as rent. For a job, he plied a three wheeler rickshaw taxi. Pinky’s mother mainly took care of the household chores bringing up their two daughters and one son. To supplement family income she also worked as domestic help for some periods, though not on a regular basis.

Pinky’s mother had no education. Her father can read some and sign in Bengali. Her elder sister  is married and lives in a village near Chandrapur. She never went to school. Her brother too left school after grade 7 and does farm work. She herself had finished grade 8 when she was married to Sukh Lal Roy, whose family was settled in Delhi after moving from East Bengal. After her marriage, Pinky moved to Delhi to live with her husband and his family.

Sukh Lal Roy schooled up to grade 7 and presently plies a private taxi van in Delhi. His father is an itinerant dealer in recycled waste like bottles, cans, newspapers, discarded metal parts, tins etc which he buys from people from their houses going on a bicycle and sells these to wholesalers in an active recycling trade in India. He had six children, three boys and three girls. His wife used to do domestic jobs but has not worked for about ten years now. One son died young and the three sisters of Sukh Lal are all married and live with their families in Govindpuri, Ghaziabad and Chandrapur. He still is pursuing this work though the market has changed and earnings are low and erratic.


Pinky and her husband lived on in a small tenement owned by parents of Sukh Lal in a slum called JJ colony in Madan Pur Khadar, near Okhla. The accommodation was shared with Sukh Lal’s parents and brother.

Pinky started doing domestic jobs from the beginning itself. Sukh Lal used to ply the waste trade like his father and continued with the same vocation after his marriage. The two started savings almost from day one of their wedlock. By 2003, the couple had a growing daughter and had built up a small nest egg of savings when they made their first investment and bought a 12 square yard lot in 2004.

As the family was growing and they had some money saved, Sukh Lal’s father agreed to let them build a tenement for their use on the first floor. The construction cost them around Rs 2 lakhs but it saved them the rent which could have been over Rs 1000 p.m. plus got the benefit of proximity to extended family and its support structure.

Soon thereafter, however, the earning of Sukh Lal started getting lean and erratic. This change in fact was a collateral effect of the major IT & communications revolution that was taking place in India and causing major shifts in the way life used to be in this ancient and unchanging society. As the volume of waste increased, a new class of workers known as rag pickers came up. Further startups using web based or IT tools started to offer waste and used goods reselling services, thus putting the individual operators at increasing competitive disadvantage.

By 2006 things turned difficult for Sukh Lal. At the same time prices of real estate had gone up steeply. Pinky and Sukh Lal decided to sell the land they had acquired in 2003 and use the money to reorganize their lives. They were able to sell the land for Rs 2,75,000  – a net gain of Rs 2,35,000 over three years on an investment of Rs 40,000 which translates to almost six time increase!

They put this money to work. The first choice was purchase of a Maruti Van for Rs 2,75,000/= with a down payment of Rs 1,00,000/= and the remainder through a Bank loan. This van was not for own use but became the private taxi that Sukh Lal has since been plying. Driving became his new job – a successful mid career transition that has brought additional income for the growing needs of the family.

They also spent Rs 30,000/= to buy some gold jewelry for Pinky. This is in line with a traditional Indian practice which in essence does provide a reserve resource for families for the rainy day. It may not be the most productive way of creating a nest egg but it is built into the Indian culture and has its other uses. Gold is a source of family security and can provide collateral to raise short term loans from informal lenders dotting these societies. Gold also has registered long term price increases and is considered by many as a safe and profitable investment.

That was not all. Pinky’s father has a plot of land measuring about 250 square yards intended to be passed to his three children for their use. Pinky spent the remaining Rs 1.5 lakhs to for getting Municipal water supply and electrical connection and build a bath room on this plot of land. Her share of this property is expected to be 1/3rd plus money she put into its improvement.


The accommodation on each floor is one room with a kitchen and a bathroom. The place has electric connection but the water supply is through a bore well using a hand pump. In the absence of piped water supply and sanitary system the daily human waste has to be manually disposed by her into a Corporation pickup truck. The colony has open drains which empty into Jamuna river.

Chandni and Naina go to an English medium US charity aided Good Samaritan School in Jasola. Chandni is doing well in class while Naina came first in her class. Both Pinky and her husband do not have the ability or the time to help the kids with their studies or home work. To help with that, they have arranged tuition for English, math and science paying Rs 1000 p.m. for Chandni and Rs 500 p.m. for Naina. Being poor, the girls are not charged any tuition fees by the school though they have to buy books, school supplies, uniforms, carry or buy school lunch and travel to and from the school on their own.

Pinky has a refrigerator and uses LPG burner and pressure cooker for cooking. She leaves for work around 7 a.m. after giving breakfast to the family and preparing their pack lunches. Her working hours at a Company Office in Nehru Enclave are from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. She has picked up some part time work in close vicinity and does these jobs in between her spare time at her job. Being a member of their cleaning crew, she is not fully occupied through the day and can keep on running between various jobs. Her earnings presently are around Rs 8700 p.m. – 6000 from her full time job and 2700 from two part time jobs.

The family chore takes a lot of coordinated effort by Sukh Lal and Pinky. Sukh Lal drops kids at the School at 8 a.m. and then plies his cab till he has to picks the kids back from the School at 2 p.m. He then babysits the girls at home till Pinky returns from work around 5 p.m. They do not leave the girls home unattended because of safety concerns in the neighborhood. He then is back on work till about 10 p.m. His earnings average about Rs 12000 p.m. He seldom takes a day off.


A few months earlier, Pinky and her husband purchased a plot of land measuring 18 square yards in their Colony by paying Rs 9, 50, 000 in cash. The lot also has a one bed and bath unit fetching a rent of Rs 1400 p.m. This brings additional cash flow and added security to their domestic economy.

The money for this purchase was raised without taking on an interest bearing loan though it did involve an indirect cost of Rs 30,000. Pinky has been member of an informal local community based saving scheme called ‘committee’ for 7 years. This involved a monthly pay in of Rs 5000 into the collection by 20 members. The monthly collection of Rs 100,000 is paid to the member who wins the draw. Any member who wishes to buy the draw can do so by making a bid for that. Early on during the cycle of a committee, the bid for buying the draw can be pretty high though it drops as close draws near. Pinky had saved around Rs 600, 000 by committees over the years and kept it in a Bank for safety. To close the land purchase they needed more funds and bid Rs 30000 for the committee and thus put together a total of around Rs 6, 70, 000. Her father chipped in with Rs 200,000, possibly in recompense for her help in 2003. We gave her Rs 55, 000 and the other employer gave Rs 10,000 as advance salary to help out.

Current income of the family is around Rs 22000 p.m. Of this her present kitty is Rs 7000 and she is paying back about Rs 1500 p.m. against advances – an incredible saving rate of around 40% for the family. She has been asking for deferment of payments against advance because they want to replace the old Van that Sukh Lal drives. We would of course help out.

It is to be appreciated that savings are their only safety net – the poor really do not have any back up for education or weddings of kids or for emergencies, illnesses or other unforeseen expenses. Nor do they have access to any pensions or social security benefits.


If there is any lesson from this story it is that notwithstanding absence of any support system and being weighed down by poverty people can yet achieve a lot in life depends more on us rather than what societal support systems can do for us. Pinky and Sukh Lal are young people who have exercised their voting rights from the time they grew up. They have awareness of their rights and freedoms but they chose not to keep waiting for the promises made by the politicians to lift them out of poverty and create jobs for all to materialize. They instead took the problems in their lives head on and found ways out. In the process there is hope that they might succeed in making the lives of their children better than theirs were and possibly pass them also the values of self assurance and self help as key to success and happiness in life.

Their story tells us that family relationship of mutual support, shared decision making, living in keeping with our means et al are not mere advisories from the staid lives of yesteryears but have continuing validity in all our circumstances. We must not wait for changes in societal attitudes and community practices but create own network of support measures to enhance our capabilities to cope with uncertainties.

A fact that must be given some extra credit is that Pinky, in spite of little education and marriage at age 15, managed her affairs with responsibility and a degree of maturity. At the same time she does not display any sense of ego – on the other hand she is all praise for her husband, daughters and family members on both sides. She does not complain about her jobs, the pressure of work or the attitudes of colleagues or employers. She does what she can in time available. She could be more careful about quality of her work but is managing both the informal work sector while using formal work sector to be the support source for her extra earnings from the informal work sector.

Her empowerment story is rooted in self-help effort and in showing empathy with her family and co workers; making decisions for self but not in a selfish mode; thinking positively and sharing; adopting to changes and  striking a balance between work and family.

She is giving her daughters the best chance they can have in their circumstances of getting educated. They go to a good school where they have to talk in English and are fined Rs 5 for every dereliction in that direction. They have tuition because parents cannot teach them. She has acquired property as a hedge against any need for higher education of girls if they want to pursue it. She does not think that girls would cease to exist once they are married.

Her success is in spite of not having used any of schemes such as Integrated Child Development Scheme, Rajiv Gandhi National Creche Scheme for Children of Working Mothers , Dhanalakshmi, Swadhar etc.

They could have been part of at least 35 lakh households in urban areas that have no source of income, according to the first ever socio-economic and caste census (SECC) in urban areas. The government on Friday [3/7/15] released the data for rural areas, while the findings relating to urban areas would be released soon.

They live in a house with electricity, water and toilet within premises – a great benefit for the girl child.


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