Amidst the din that the electronic media raised over the entry of women aged between 10 and 50 inside the Sabarimala shrine, there was another development, a positive one at that, insofar as the condition of women in the state.
In an ordinance notified on October 4, 2018, the state government said that shops and establishments should ensure sitting arrangements for the women working as sales-persons; it also provided for punishments where such arrangements were not made.
In what could be termed as another instance of what media studies scholar Guy Debord termed Society of the Spectacle and the media’s essential role in that, a lot of us were made to believe that the whole of the people in Kerala, at least the chunk of its people were on the streets in resisting the Supreme Court’s order that all women, irrespective of their age and their phase in life (menstruating or otherwise) shall be allowed entry inside the shrine at Sabarimala. The truth, however, was otherwise.
It is now emerging that about 2,500 persons whose political predilections rest close to revivalist and revanchist ideas such as celebrating
sati and expressing it by vandalising cinema halls or remaining silent when ordinary men are lynched on mere suspicion over their food preferences were the force behind the violence on the roads leading to the Sabarimala shrine. In other words, like all instances of mob violence, the violent protests on roads to Sabarimala too were orchestrated.
The media ‘shows’, however, gave an impression otherwise. Even the ones where the anchors of the show on Sabarimala chose to celebrate the Supreme Court order and show the ‘protests’ as revanchist ended up turning the whole issue into a spectacle and some even talked about history being made.
They were unaware that history is about events of the past seen through the prism of the present; and that such accounts of events in the present are called chronicles.
The trouble here is that their lack of such technical knowledge about history and their penchant for spectacles led them to give a miss to a measure of historical importance and one that involved the women and their lives in the present. That is why the media, particularly electronic, did not talk much of the ordinance 50 of 2018 promulgated on October 4, 2018, adding substantive provisions to the Kerala Shops and Commercial Establishments Act, 1960.The ordinance amended the existing act to insert four important provisions to it:
To include apprentices and any such persons engaged in shops and commercial establishment as ‘employees’.
One day in a week as fully paid holiday to employees in shops and this notwithstanding any clause contrary to this in their employment contract.
That women shall be allowed to be employed in shifts between 9 PM and 6 AM (which was prohibited hitherto) but only with their consent and where it is done, any such batch of five employees shall include at least two women and all this only with the consent of the women thus employed and ensuring that they are given transport from homes to the place of work and return by the employer.
And last, but most important that “in every shop and establishment, suitable arrangements for sitting shall be provided for all workers so as to avoid “on the toes” situation throughout the duty time, so that they may take advantage of any opportunity to sit which may occur in the course of their work”.
The ordinance also amended the terms of punishment to be imposed on establishments that are found, during an inspection, violating the provisions wherein the fine for the first instance of such violation increased to Rs 100,000 from Rs 5,000 and in the second such instance to Rs 200,000 from Rs 10,000.
The reason why I call this historic is the context or the background to this ordinance. It goes back to a strike that five of the many women employees (salespersons) of a leading textile retailer across Kerala and elsewhere in December 2013 demanding humane working conditions.
The strike lasted three long months before the employer agreed to address their demands. The women employees were agitating against such conditions as standing in their counters for long hours, having to seek permission from the shop-floor manager every time they went to the rest-rooms and such permission being denied often despite working hours of up to 12 hours. The shops considered it their right to deny even a stool at their counters to sit when customers were not there.
Recall the strike actions and the tragic death of a HR-manager in the Manesar plant of the Maruti factory in July 2012 when workers protested against denial of provision for attending nature’s call during their working hours in the factory.
The women employees of the textile retailer’s showrooms were making similar demands but they did that outside the shop premises. The media, then too, did not show these and for reasons that the textile retailer, who was also in the business of gold and jewellery, happened to be one of its advertisers and hence a source of revenue.
The issues raised, however, were taken up by a researcher – an activist – in her report and the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) issued a notice to the department of labour, government of Kerala. The matter concerned the department and involved the Kerala Shops and Establishment Act, 1960. In other words, a resolution to the dispute rested upon amendments to the act of 1960.
The ordinance, indeed, is a response to that and hence historical. As much as the Supreme Court judgement rejecting the ban on women aged between 10 and 50 years of age, entering the shrine at Sabarimala was historical in the context of humanity’s march to modernity and rendering the society we live in more humane and democratic.
It is here that the media professionals seemed to fail in their duty. The point is not that the media should have refrained from discussing the spectacle at Nilackal and at Sabarimala as it unfolded in a couple of days around October 18, 2018. The trouble is when they ended up putting out the spectacle without clearly understanding the context and more so when they left out reportage on October 4, 2018, ordinance and the positive implications of that on the lives of women and those working women in Kerala and thus fore-ground the status of similarly placed women in other parts of the nation.
V Krishna Ananth is Professor of History, SLABS, SRM University AP, Amaravati.