I have always looked at the concept of “insurance” as a clever con game, at least in India. Like the veterans always say, nobody actually wins inside a casino, except the casino! The same argument holds for insurance companies. If a citizen does manage to squeeze some money out of these con companies, consider it a major feat. The problem is simple: very few of us read the fine print when we sign on the dotted line. But why then do we sign? Because we are essentially insecure people, and are conditioned to believe it is important to “protect” ourselves. Just in case! For the longest time, I refused to fall into the insurance trap. Recently, I quietly succumbed. And in my state of panic, I made sure all the children were “properly” insured as well. This “cover” has done one thing, though. I sleep better at night. I tell myself, if I do drop dead, or the potholes of Mumbai claim another victim, at least some piddly amount of money can be claimed by my family. Ahhhhaaaa — now comes the fun part. If I get knocked down by a speeding motorcyclist, while I am gingerly negotiating potholes, my folks will be entitled to a grand sum of Rs 5.5 lakhs as compensation, going by what the Motor Accident Claims Tribunal has just awarded to Fatima Khan’s husband and their four children. This is a remarkable award on many levels. When Fatima, a 35-year-old housewife, was killed in an accident, the tribunal took a house help’s salary as a benchmark to determine the award. In other words, Fatima’s “worth” was calculated on the basis of the housework she undertook in her own home. Washing dishes, sweeping, doing the clothes, cooking and other assorted “services” generally provided by full-time maids, who, the tribunal decided, earn Rs 4,500 a month, for the listed chores. Unlisted chores were not taken into consideration, I suppose. So the late Fatima’s life was effectively reduced to the household duties she voluntarily performed. Duties that would otherwise have been handled by house help. The mother-as-maid is not new. But this makes it official.
Interestingly, the Motor Accident Claims Tribunal 2017 has stated that even if the husband is not financially dependent on his wife, his dependence is on the household work she provides. And that entitles him to compensation. This can be viewed in positive, progressive terms, or with a heavy dose of cynicism. The Supreme Court in 2015 had clarified that it was hard to monetise the hard work required to look after the family on a full-time basis. A homemaker’s contribution was described as invaluable. Frankly, it can never be accurately computed. What is “notional income”? How can anybody even start to calculate it? Flavia Agnes, lawyer, argues that a working woman, who is considered as a contributing/earning member of the household, gets adequate compensation. But when it comes to full-time homemakers, there is a discriminatory attitude. The Supreme Court in 2012 also pointed out that often the precious time spent by homemakers can be as easily invested in education or paid work. But isn’t. How does one tackle these tricky issues? I see myself as a full-time homemaker. I have always worked from my dining table. My primary responsibilities have been towards raising my family. Writing ferociously is the bonus! Writing is therapy. Passion. Technically, do I qualify as a homemaker who “writes on the side”? Or a full-time writer, who looks after the household on the side? I guess I will have to be killed by a motorcyclist like Ajinkya Khupte to find the answer.
While I am glad that Mohammed Khan’s patience didn’t run out since the time he moved the tribunal in 2012 (he had sought a compensation of Rs 6 lakhs back then), Fatima’s brother-in-law being an eyewitness to the horrific accident, strengthened her husband’s claim. But to arrive at a fair “formula” is not just daunting, but virtually impossible. The Delhi high court in 2012 tried, by suggesting if the victim is a graduate, then you can calculate a package based on minimum salary for a graduate, with other factors thrown in (age, lack of children). This may be a practical way to put a price tag on a woman’s worth, but I find it demeaning, mechanical and insensitive. Society glibly describes a homemaker’s contribution as “invaluable”. That’s a cop out. Who decides how “invaluable”? Here I am, looking back at 45 years of consistent work, albeit from my dining table, and wondering how valuable or invaluable that makes my life? For Mohammed Khan, `5.5 lakhs is better than nothing. But `6 lakhs in 2012 cannot be compared to `5.5 lakhs in 2017. The four kids are older. Their needs and expenses may have doubled. But at least, this is a beginning — a small one, but still. Fatima cannot be replaced in the lives of the Khan family. The motorcycle owner, Ajinkya Khupte, and the Oriental Insurance Company should consider themselves really lucky to get away paying such a pittance. As for me, I have drawn up a long laundry list of all my domestic duties over the past decades. Be warned: if anything happens to me, the insurance company will have to pay through its snotty nose!