17/04/2019 1:54 PM IST | Updated 23/04/2019 8:11 AM IST

India General Election 2019: Who Will Guwahati's Women Vote For?

We asked women vendors in Assam what they want from political parties – it's NOT the NRC.

Over the past couple of years, political conversations about Assam have been dominated by the NRC and citizenship debates. This has only increased as campaigning heats up for the Lok Sabhaelection. But women were missing from the forefront through most of the protests and debates. Even though they otherwise occupy a prominent place in Assam’s markets and streets, their voices seemed eerily absent.

So we decided to ask women vendors and traders in Guwahati what they wanted from political parties as they get ready to vote. Did we spend our time speaking of the NRC?

Surprisingly, no.

The women we spoke to—they run tea stalls, sell fish and vegetables for a living and are often missing from the discussion around elections and manifestos—were concerned with issues of livelihood, of how to feed their families, alcoholism and, crucially, the absence of toilets in the public spaces where they work. They come from communities with disparate histories and political identities, some from rural homesteads, others from illegal migrant colonies, but many of their concerns were similar.

Most women say the government isn’t doing enough for them. And yet, the answer to whether they will vote is almost always “yes”. As vegetable seller Anita Medhi puts it, “we live on hope”. Migrants to the city who haven’t managed to get their polling booths shifted are set to travel back to their villages to exercise their franchise. Many of these vendors live in rural areas around Guwahati and travel for hours into the city and back every day.

In Guwahati, which will vote in the third phase of elections on 23 April, the two main contenders are both women—Queen Ojha from the BJP and Bobbeeta Sharma from the Congress. While both have considerable achievements and influence—Ojha, in particular, has been mayor of Guwahati and is the richest among Assam’s women candidates this time—they aren’t free of the prejudice and sexism that accompanies women in public life either. “Catfight between Queen Ojha and Bobbeeta Sharma” is how one website described the fact that two women were contesting against each other in a high-stakes election in 2019.

The women in Ojha and Sharma’s constituency, especially those in subsistence jobs, face a lot of prejudice and challenges in their working lives as well. So what do they really want from political parties?

‘These men would rather we run around working for them’

When I begin this conversation in Sumati Narzary’s tea shop in Kharghuli, it  takes us a while to get to the point. Everyone agrees they will vote, but no one believes anything will come out of it. Election promises are just that—for a few months now, the subsidised rice will come because of the elections, then it will stop. And the leaders will forget we exist. Again and again, this phrase is repeated to me: whoever sits on the throne in Lanka, becomes Ravan

Lakhi Brahma from the nearby Joypur village sells chicken from her stall, set against the stone wall of a building on the Kharghuli hill. A large umbrella, a table, a slab of wood and a chicken coop close by—this makes up the stall.

Every morning at 6 , Lakhi cycles about 6 km from Kharghuli to Anuradha Colony to buy a few birds that she then brings back to slaughter and sell.

After her husband died, she had worked as a household help for a while before opening her shop a year ago. She will vote on 23 April, but has no hopes that any government will do anything for her. But persuade her a little to speak freely, and the worries pour out.

There’s price rise. For businesses like hers to run, she needs prices to be stable: even a minimal price rise in chicken (whole) from Rs 95 to Rs 115 in the past two months has led to losses for her.

She would like protection for her shop: influential men from the area, who have political connections, are harassing her, threatening to evict her and destroy the shop.

They would rather she work as a domestic help in their houses than run her own shop, she says bitterly.

‘Xihotor pise pise dourile bhaal paai…’’ Narzary adds from behind her shop counter—These men would rather we run around working for them…

A stall of one’s own—however precarious—is  freedom of sorts.

Without this, says Lakhi, how would she feed and send her young children to school?

Both Lakhi and Narzary are popular with the students of the nearby Don Bosco Institute (DBI), who are regular visitors to the market. Ámy Lyngdoh, who is graduating with an MBA, says she is deeply inspired by Lakhi’s work ethic. “Every day we see her just working so hard!,” she says.

Narzary has been running the shop since 2017, and usually employs two people to help with the cooking and serving. These are mostly neighbourhood women, who come in and work for a few months when they need the money. When I visit, the two women are Sapna and Archana Momin.

Archana is a young, articulate woman who will go back to her village, a Rs 30 bus ride from Nagaon town on the Diphu road, to vote. A Class X pass in her twenties, she had earlier worked a few years in the housekeeping sector at a nearby institution, followed by a year-long stint at a garment factory in Gujarat. The hours were long, the work hard and the money not worth it, so she returned to Guwahati to work with Narzary in her shop.

Archana has many ideas on what the government should do, but her vote will be decided only when she returns to her village.

Eta gaon, eta vote.” One village, one vote.

Archana identifies herself in many ways—as ‘job card’ people , referring to MNREGA work, as a young person responsible for her family and so on. But when it comes to voting, one identity stands out among everything else.

“We are Garo people  in Assam, we have to decide as a community who to vote for.”

Voting, especially for the Lok Sabha, is often influenced by community allegiance. Narzary, for instance, has been trying to shift the constituency for both her and her husband to Guwahati for the past ten years, but each time something goes wrong or a document is not accepted. As always, she will go back to Kokrajhar, 225 km away, to vote. She is still seething at the chaos wreaked by demonetisation and struggling with high prices and does not want the BJP back at the centre, but her vote in Kokrajhar will likely be for Bodoland People’s Front, a BJP ally.

Kumkum Begum, who lives close by and has stopped by for a cup of tea and to ask if there’s any work going, chips in. She is still struggling to get the benefits she’s entitled to under government schemes. “Kagoz pelai pelai, haar maanisu…” “I’ve given up after putting in so many application,” she says.

She has not been able to access anything from these schemes: toilets, loans, her widow pension, a road near her house. But more than anything else, what she wants is a working streetlight and the dangerous road near their house to be repaired.

Eventually, everyone in the shop agrees on two things: first, that the incoming government should simply give women, especially those with little support or migrants to the city, better access to existing government schemes.

And second, any political party promising to stop alcohol—sulai mod—in the Kharghuli area will get their support. Young and old, everyone is animated as they speak of the havoc that alcohol has caused in this area. Sapna, who was cutting onions and professed herself as too cynical to even think of voting for a cause, is suddenly garrulous: Every morning at 5 am, gallons and gallons of sulai mod and bakhor come into the area, let them stop this.

Alcoholism in this area is high (even though there isn’t a licensed liquor shop), leading to premature deaths, ill health and domestic abuse. The police, the student unions, they all make promises to protesting women, they say, but do nothing. Everyone agrees that if they could, they would make prohibition a campaign plank in the elections.

‘There’s no one watching out for you…’

Hiron Das isn’t very impressed by the fact that there are women candidates running for important seats this time. Das is one of the few women who sell fish in the Uzanbazar ghat as well as run an evening stall in the Uzanbazar main market.  She is an imposing figure, known to hold her own in the market dominated by men.

There is no one watching out for you if you are poor and helpless, she says. She had never imagined that she would be running a shop, but her husband died 12 years ago, leaving her with three children.  She did everything to feed her children—working in people’s homes and at construction sites. Her youngest boy was still at her hip and suckling when she started to sell fish.

“Ididn’t know how to cut fish, how to calculate money, I had to learn it all with people shouting and abusing me. The children sat at the fish stall in the rains and there was nothing, no help I could seek from the government. I filed paper after paper for a widow’s pension but being unlettered, I didn’t get a rupee.

“Surely, the government can do something for widows, those with no way to feed their children?

Even now, there is an eviction notice where we live, can the government not assure us of a place to stay, make a living, give us some help? Instead of giving us more pain...”

‘Give them another chance, no?’

Many of the women who travel to Guwahati daily to sell vegetables take a train into the city. Anita Medhi takes the morning train along with a group of women from the Singira railway station in Boko, the rural part of Kamrup district. She sells her vegetables on the road outside the main post office, surrounded by male hawkers selling job application forms.

Anita will vote in her village Teteli Komarbari in Boko, which falls in the Guwahati constituency. She began her trips to Guwahati when her son passed the Class X examination and there was no money to send him to college. More than a decade since then, both her boys have completed their education, but she continues to travel to Guwahati to sell vegetables.

Anita hopes for a more stable income and better work conditions, particularly an end to the harassment of  women vendors by the TT in the train, who regularly extorts money despite the women having tickets. Sometimes they lose their whole day’s earnings to these extortions.

As for these elections, she is not happy with the government—bahut harasasti korise—they have caused us a lot of harassment . But she doesn’t see an alternative and feels the current regime should be given another chance to see if they can make things work. Her eyes twinkle as she says with a half-resigned smile: “Give them another chance, no?”

‘Who will hear us?’

The Uzanbazar market has more women vendors bringing vegetables from Boko, Khetri and other rural areas outside Guwahati. One such group comes regularly from the village Boko Phalukota in a hired mini-truck. For most of these women, the day begins a couple of hours before the truck arrives at 5 am. Once it comes, they pick up vegetables from different houses in the village where they have placed orders earlier, and reach the city by 10 am.  They are here till 7 or 8 at night before the drive home. Their husbands, or in some cases other relatives, look after the children, cook and tend to the fields, cows and crops through the day. As for their hopes for the elections, they need sohoi and subidha, help and facilities, for both their village and their place of work in the city.  But mostly, Jaya Rabha tells me, dukhiya khini’k soku meli saabo laage—these politicians need to open their eyes to the needs of the poor.  

It is as simple as that.

The village is a mess, they say: no bridge, bad roads, no support yet for Indira Yojana houses. Every election, there are hundreds of promises but little change.

For Guwahati, the women have a plan (if anyone is listening) : give us a ‘khula bazaar’, an open bazaar, demarcate  a space in the city for all the traders who come from Boko and Goalpara so we won’t have to struggle with evictions by the Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) and police, or fight with people who want to park vehicles.  Put in facilities for toilets. It will be good for everyone—customers and traders.

Right now, everything is a struggle. Toilets, for instance, have been set up in many rural areas, but not the markets in the city. What do women traders do? Uzanbazar does not have a public ladies toilet, only one for the GMC office and it is filthy. Even a pay-for-use would be welcome, Ila Boro say.  Now, they use the open fields outside Jalukbari when they are driving into the city and try to hold it in until it is time to return. It feels heartless to even ask about Swacch Bharat or smart cities in the light of these everyday impossibilities.

Have they ever considered mobilising to put their demands forward?

“Kaak bisarim? Kaak Kom? Aaami aahi bostu bikri kori gusi jao…”

“Who do we approach? Who will hear us? We come, sell our wares and leave...”

Design inputs from Joel Rodrigues