The tools in her bag jingle. There is a spring in her step as Jaya Mannan, 42, a resident of Marayoor in Kerala’s Idukki district has finished two house calls and is on to her third by noon. Be it replacing tap washers, clearing clogged drains, sinks or fixing leaks, this spectacled plumber can do all. “Till I picked up the wrench, I was just another woman. Today, however grudging, people have begun to respect me,” she says, tying her hair as she sits by the verandah of a village shop sipping tea. “I make Rs.100 per day. In fact, a local hospital insists I attend to all plumbing complaints.”
She is not alone. With a 99% literacy rate and very few industries other than tourism, Kerala has an acute shortage of jobs. In addition to this, an extreme shortage of plumbers in Kerala following the mass migration of men to the Persian Gulf has seen many middle-aged women take to plumbing as a vocation. Apart from economic independence, this has opened doors to empowerment in this verdant region where newfangled bungalows are replacing traditional houses. “Unlike traditional homes which relied on the well, or had at the most one tap, the new ones come with wash basins, sinks, showers and what have you. Naturally, they need upkeep and we find work,” says 34-year-old S Priyal, the mother of a 7-year-old.
Little wonder then, when the local Amrita University began offering a three-month course in plumbing from January this year, the responses were mostly from women. “We were expecting only men to apply but found a huge response from women instead,” remembers technical manager of the laboratory at Amrita University, Akshay Nagrajan.
We meet Usha B, 48, a student from the first official all-women batch of trained plumbers. With her three children “married and settled,” this wife of a retired policeman from Todayoor-Karunagapalli village in Kollam district says she already enjoys the work. “Where is it written that only men should do this work? Anyway nowadays we are doing everything that men can and doing it better, so why not?” she cracks up as her classmates join in.
Though Usha worked as a lab technician in a hospital a few years ago, she insists this job feels special. “Here I feel like I am my own master,” she says. In fact, Usha convinced four of her friends to join the free class. One of them is Vasantha Kumari, a 49-year-old mother of three. While Kumari’s daughter is married, her sons are bio-medical engineering and MBA students. “My husband doesn’t keep well. So he can’t earn enough,” she explains. “Expenses keep rising. I thought about it for a few days and realised this is something I’ll be able to do. When I told my family, they were surprised but luckily didn’t oppose me.”
The quartet finish their household chores and take a boat across the backwaters to reach the University for the class where most classmates are also married and have young children at home. “But we have to admit that our husbands support us,” smiles Priyal.
The 260-hour course trains students on a simulator before they actually begin working with pliers, spanners, wrenches and pipes. “From lifting heavy commodes or bathtubs to tending to swimming pools or jacuzzis, we never feel we shouldn’t do something just because we are women,” points out Usha. “For us, Jaya of Marayoor is our role model. We feel, ‘If she could do it, why can’t we?’”
With many big hospitals, colleges and hotels needing full-time plumbers, many are calling the women’s decision to take the course a pragmatic one. “Apart from the big institutions, even homes need plumbers. Irrespective of where we are, we can use these skills for income generation,” points out Sindhu, one of the women trainees.
“I find women more committed and precise in their work which is required in this profession. They take longer to do a task initially but their work is always perfect,” explains the women’s trainer, R Suresh.
Dr Vibhuti Patel, Economics department head at SNDT University and an expert on gender issues, feels the trend could be picked up by other states like Tamil Nadu, Andhra and Karnataka. “Skilled labour from all these four southern states has migrated to the Gulf. To narrow the gender gap and encourage women in the skilled workforce, in 1988, the Union government agreed to start vocational courses for women. If women abroad are doing well as electricians and welders, why should our women not be allowed to explore these fields?”
Dr DK Mangal, who is the Maharashtra Program coordinator of United Nations Population Fund, points out how women are a big component of the unskilled labour force in India. “Nearly 2/3rd of MNREGS workers are women. Unlike men who are encouraged and often end up making the transition from unskilled to skilled labour, most women never get that opportunity to upgrade,” he explains, lauding the Kerala effort. He, however, does sound a note of caution too. “As women move into these sectors, the government will have to ensure there are mechanisms to prevent social ills like sexual harassment in place.”
We ask the Kerala plumber sorority about these concerns and they say they have no such fears.” If we can pick up a wrench to fix pipes, you think we won’t use it to defend ourselves?” asks Usha.