At 6 am everyday, 17-year-old Nisha (not her real name) reports to work for the family that has employed her as its domestic help for the last four years.
In the high-rise building in South Colaba in Mumbai where an apartment rents for about a lakh a month, she earns Rs 2000. She cleans their bathrooms, washes their clothes, and looks after a five-year-old child. She sleeps in a small room attached to her employers' home. But when she needs to go downstairs from the 13th floor where they live, she heads not to the elevator in the front, but to a separate lift at the back of the building.
"They allow me to take care of their child but they protest if I use their lifts. Our employer may have no issues with us using their lifts but when others protest, they don't intervene and ask us to step out. We feel insulted but we cannot do anything. We are helpless," she says.
Like most residential buildings in Mumbai, this one is run by a "housing society." Its rules do not declare this, but there is a tacit understanding that residents of the building will not use the same lifts as domestic staff.
"Once when I took the lift meant for my sahibs
(employers), I was asked to step out by the watchman. When I asked him why can't I go, he told me there are orders not to allow housekeeping staff inside," Nisha explains.
NDTV visited a dozen residential buildings in the city. The vulgar class divide stretched across all of them.
At another high-rise in Colaba, a driver tells us there are three elevators for the building. Two are used by residents; the third is made available to staff. There is no signage to indicate this, but the watchmen are in charge of ensuring that domestic help knows what not to do.
"If we use their lift, the watchman doesn't allow us in," the driver says. "He says 'use the other lift which is meant for us'. There is no scope for protest." When asked if any one working in the building had considered rallying the others to campaign against the segregation, he said, "We are their servants. They have the money and hence the attitude...while working hard, our clothes get dirty but that doesn't mean they should treat us like untouchables."
In some buildings, while the residents' elevators are automatic with sliding doors, the domestic staff uses old-fashioned lifts where the latticed metal doors have to be swung shut. Unlike the elevator for residents, the service lifts are dirty; exhaust fans don't work.
Commercial buildings where floors are rented out as office space follow the same offensive policy. At one such building on Elphinstone Road, the lift man who rides up and down in elevators all day, escorting people to different floors, explains that here too, there is a separate elevator for guards and housekeeping staff employed by companies who have offices here.
"People have inhibitions," he says, shrugging. When asked if he occasionally violates the offensive rules, he says he doesn't dare to. "They scold us. We feel sad, but a day's salary gets deducted if we fail to abide by the rules."