Saundarya Cleaning Co-operative

Manjulaben's story speaks volumes of her struggle, not only at the personal front but for the co-operative as well. From a rag picker to becoming the Chairperson of the co-op. and get a place on the Board of Director of Sewa Co-operative Federation, she has indeed gone a long way.

"I got married at the age of 20 to a hawker who sold handloom bed sheets and cutlery items. Since he was a hawker there was never a fixed income he brought in every month. There was always a fluctuation in his earnings. I had gone to school until the 10th grade and decided I must work in order to contribute to my family's income. My mother in law pressurized me immensely to have more children. I already had one son and as I didn't have say in the whole decision, I ended up having three daughters.

Manjulaben's story says a lot about how women are pressurized into having multiple children by their families. Her mother in law did not understand her situation and her husband had to eventually take a loan for Rs. 13000/- against her jewelry that did not leave the family with much, but debts.

"I made adjustments with my mother-in-law who agreed to take care of my children when I joined SEWA. SEWA got an offer from National Institute of Design who wanted someone for cleaning services. So I joined the first batch of 31 women at NID. I earned Rs. 75/- per day/ SEWA got an offer from NID (National Institute of Design) who wanted cleaning services from our members. I joined the first batch of 31 women to do cleaning at NID. I earned Rs. 75/- per month. By the time we got our second job offer from PRL (Physical Research Laboratory), I was made the supervisor of the members working there."

She talks about how she started expanding her work. "We formed a co-operative, with 106 members, the difficulty of registration notwithstanding. I was now handling marketing of the co-operative. I distributed pamphlets and went to different areas of the city to help the women get organized. My days at work now became longer and hence began another phase of struggle at my home front. My husband didn't approve of me staying at office for long hours. I was elected the secretary of Saundarya Co-op. A lot of confrontations took place between me and my husband but my presence at the co-operative office was inevitable. So I continued working there at the risk of my family's wrath."

"Since, I could read and write I soon started handling management, banking and even accounting work of the co-operative. I had also learnt to make estimates of costs for the agreement to be signed between the co-op. and the clients. I had a new avatar now. The shy and not-so-confident Manjula could now negotiate terms with heads of offices. She didn't fear anyone now."

She continued, "It was a great moment of pride for me when in 2003 I was elected as the chairperson of Saundarya Cleaning Co-op. However, my struggle at the co-operative front only increased. The Labour Union of Physical Research Laboratory objected to maintaining our attendance register. Their argument was The Saundarya Co-operative was a contractor. We represented the fact that the co-operative has an identity and is registered as a co-operative under Co-operative Act. All the working members were share holder and owners of the co-operative enterprise. They collectively share the loss and surplus. And there is an agreement between the co-operative and PRL for rendering cleaning services."

Manjula ben did not just have to worry about her husband being unhappy with her work. She also had to face several legal issues and threats. "Since it was me who represented the co-operative in the labour court, I was often threatened and even had to go to the police station. I was told that my children shall be kidnapped in case I didn't give in. A lot of personal remarks were made. I was not afraid. I said I have the support of thousands of women. This was the longest struggle our co-operative faced. From the labour court, we went to the High Court. And when things didn't fall in our favor even here, we even knocked the doors of the Supreme Court. It affected us severely and many organizations cancelled the agreements with us. We had to prove that Saundarya is not the contract base agency but a co-operative. We struggled for many years and then won the case finally."

"Today my work involves collecting cheques from the clients, renewing the agreements with them and scrutinizing bills. I also make an estimate of the workload and the number of members to be assigned to the job. The cooperative has celebrated its silver jubilee."

"My goal now is to involve more women in the cooperative. Today we have 15 leaders and 500 members. Tomorrow there will be 1500 leaders and 5000 members."

She proudly continued "Our living conditions have improved tremendously. My kids are educated and I have traveled to Thailand, Sri Lanka and Germany for a study visit. I can't forget that experience. I learnt so much from it. I also saw a lot of changes in the way people talked to me now. If there is any problem, they come to me for advice. They think I am someone intelligent and can help them.

My son is a computer engineer. But you know people go to colleges and universities to get a degree. For me SEWA and SEWA Co-operative Federation is my university from where I got my M.B.A."