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Meena, the ‘raj mistry’, sets new standards

Ambika Pandit| TNN | Updated: Mar 9, 2018, 18:42 IST

HIGHLIGHTS

  • Meena Ahirwar is setting new standards as she goes about building homes and supervising work at construction sites in her role as a head mason.
  • The “raj mistry” holds a place of prominence in the hierarchy of labourers where men continue to dominate the work profile.

NEW DELHI: Defying patriarchy and breaking into a carefully guarded male bastion, Meena Ahirwar is setting new standards as she goes about building homes and supervising work at construction sites in her role as a “raj mistry“, or head mason.

Meena Ahirwar and her husband respond calmly to the ‘shock and awe’ her ‘raj mistry’ status often evokes. (TOI photo)

Right now, she is part of the construction team building a three-storey house in Hari Nagar. From layering neatly laid out rows of bricks with cement and checking the column strength for durability to keeping a watch over the junior mason and the helpers, Meena’s confidence on site shows she is no less than the men on the job.

Masonry is classified as skilled labour and commands a higher daily wage. The “raj mistry” holds a place of prominence in the hierarchy of labourers where men continue to dominate the work profile.

For Meena, it was not an easy decision to transition from the role of a helper, normally reserved for women labourers, to become the skilled mason that she is today. The transition started some seven years ago when she told her husband, a “raj mistry”, that she wanted to walk in his footsteps to bring home more money for a better education for their five children. “Woh hairan zaroor huey lekin mana nahin kiya aur kaha ke kar sakti ho toh karo (He was surprised but did not discourage me and said, ‘Do it if you can’).” Since then the couple have walked the path of masonry together, challenging stereotypes and responding calmly to the shock and awe Meena’s “raj mistry” status very often evokes. The residents of the slum cluster in Hari Nagar, where they live, are still coming to terms with Meena’s work profile. She said when she started some laughed and some told her that this work was not for women and that it was a man’s job. “I told them only one thing: I am doing this for my children’s future,” she told TOI.

Her head covered with a dupatta and a smile on her face, Meena stopped for a quick chat with this TOI correspondent at the construction site. She said they had migrated to urban cities almost two decades ago because lack of rain made farming difficult in their village in Madhya Pradesh. She first worked as a helper at construction sites. Now she makes up to Rs 800 a day as a “raj mistry”.

Meena’s work has stood the test of time and she handles onsite work by herself if her husband is away. “I picked up the skills watching and helping my husband. Today I take construction-related decisions with the contractor. It is not about gender, it is the quality of work that gives people confidence,” Meena said.

“Before the construction started Meena was introduced to us by her husband, Pyarelal, as the mason who would assist us with some repair work. We were surprised to see a woman mason but the quality of work was good, and now that we are reconstructing our house she’s the one supervising the masonry,” Balbir Singh, one of the owners of the under-construction house, said.

Like Meena, a few kilometres away in Bakkarwala JJ colony Ruksana is challenging the men by wearing the badge of a house painter with pride. She now takes contracts and has no qualms about balancing on wooden planks lowered from building tops to paint the exteriors. This mother of three told TOI she used to earn a measly Rs 60 as a daily-wage labourer at construction sites way back in 2004. “I realised the painter made a lot more money and started picking up the skills. Today, I take contracts and employ labour to execute painting jobs not just in houses but in offices too,” Ruksana said. She knows the dangers involved in working at a height and has seen people fall, but this doesn’t deter her from following her dream for a better life for her family.

Unlike these two women, who found success even as they struggle in male bastions, 33-year-old Kalawati Yadav is yet to find acceptance as a woman mason even though she holds two certificates in masonry acquired in government-sponsored skill training programmes. When TOI visited her house in Savda Ghevra slum resettlement in northwest Delhi, Kalawati, a mother of three, quickly brought out her certificates. She also pulled out the elaborate tool kit of a mason and then pointed towards her 18 sq ft house to say she had done the masonry herself after completing the course. Word spread and she got some work as a mason. But mostly she has had to go back to working as a helper. She now demands that the concerned government authorities must come to the rescue of women like her, who are trying hard to challenge stereotypes, and create jobs for them.
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