Raj Kumar’s favourite colour is yellow and Jagannath’s red. “Nobody has ever asked us that,” laughs Raj Kumar. The duo have no time for such digressions, though. For now, they see kesariya (saffron) and nothing else. They are munshis (supervisors) with Maheshwari Builders, the firm that has been contracted to paint the UP Secretariat, or the Lal Bahadur Shastri Bhawan, saffron.
Recently, the state government decided that the 38-year-old secretariat building, along with the strip on top, would be painted kesariya. This comes after the government has almost painted the town saffron — from buses to school bags to government booklets and even the sarkari towel on the CM’s chair, everything has taken on the colour identified with the ruling BJP.
Kumar, 46, and Jagannath, 53, and their team of around 60 labourers started work on October 23 and have been given15 days to finish it. They have so far painted two wings on either side of the building saffron. The rest of the facade will stay white, except for a patch in the middle that will be brown.
Today, the team is applying the primer (a white preparatory coating) on the part of the building that will stay white. The rear of the building will be painted saffron too, but that has been let out to another contractor. “So far, we have used 44 litres of kesariya-coloured paint. This is the first time water-proof paint is being used on this building,” says Jagannath.
At 9 am on a Wednesday, as vehicles of senior IAS officers and the secretariat staff drive in through the main gates of the high-security building at Hazratganj in Lucknow, the workers crowd around the side gate, where they show their entry passes to the security personnel and move towards the parking area. There, they change their clothes and slip into work gear — shirts and trousers splattered with paint in different colours.
The workers then split into groups. Some pick up paint brushes and buckets of primer and walk towards the main building, some stay behind in the parking area. Most of the workers use stairs to reach different floors and the terrace of the five-storey building while a few slip into escalators with the secretariat staff.
On the terrace are eight ladders, all of which are leaning against the three-foot boundary wall. Nearby is a huge pile of nylon ropes. One of the workers, Jitendra, ties one end of a rope to a jhoola (a short plank, slung from ropes, on which workers sit) and suspends it across the boundary wall. The other end of the rope goes around the last step of the ladder to form an improvised pulley. Another worker, Durgesh, who has on a safety belt around his chest, uses another of the ropes to scale the boundary wall and settle down on the jhoola. At regular intervals of a few feet, Durgesh’s co-workers, Amit, Santosh, Guddu and Lavkush, do the same.
They remain that way for the next three hours — disbelief suspended, their lives hanging by a rope and by their faith in co-workers such as Durgesh, who sit on the ladders, tightly holding onto the ropes.
Every time the painter finishes a part of the wall, he hollers out to Durgesh and the others holding on to the ropes. Durgesh then gradually releases the rope until the jhoola touches the ground below, after which the painter climbs up to the terrace again to paint another part of the wall.
It’s 11 am now and Raj Kumar and Jagannath, along with a labourer, Golu, are in the parking area with a stock of the primer. Golu is new to the job and he is still learning to mix the right proportion of primer and water. He is also responsible for refilling the empty paint buckets that the workers on the jhoola release to the ground.
Jagannath notices a patch that has been left unpainted and calls out to one of the workers above. The worker pauses, looks down and continues. “He hasn’t heard me,” says Jagannath, who calls Durgesh on his mobile phone and tells him to pass on the instruction to the painter.
Jagannath, who is from a village on the outskirts of Lucknow, started working as a construction labourer in 1975, earning Rs 2 a day. After 15 years on the job, he become a munshi and now earns Rs 12,000 a month. “It’s much easier for these workers. They have better quality paints and smoother brushes. When we were workers, we had no jhoolas or safety belts. We simply climbed on to bamboo scaffolding… it was dangerous,” he says, adding that the last time the building was painted was around a decade ago and that he was the munshi then too.
The Lal Bahadur Shatri Bhawan, also called Annexe, houses the offices of the Chief Minister, Chief Secretary, and the departments of Home, Industry, Civil Aviation and Information. The building was inaugurated on January 26, 1982, by then CM Vishwanath Pratap Singh. According to sources in the Estate Department, which maintains the building, the Annexe was off-white in the past, but was changed to white nearly 10 years ago, when Mayawati was in power.
Uttar Pradesh, especially capital Lucknow, is known to change colours depending on the party that is power. During Mayawati’s regime, road dividers and party paraphernalia took on the party colour of blue-and-white, all of which became red-and-green when the SP was in power. With BJP now, saffron has made it big.
At the parking lot, a junior engineer of the Public Works Department (PWD) turns up for an inspection, issues instructions to Jagannath and Raj Kumar and leaves. “This is the fourth time today that the officer has come. There is a lot of pressure because it is VVIP work,” says Raj Kumar, now sitting on a ledge.
At 1 pm, the workers stop for lunch. Those on the terrace roll out plastic sheets inside a store room and unpack their dabbas. Most of them live in the Khurdahi Bazar area, nearly 17 km from the Secretariat building; some even farther. “I cycle 22 km for nearly an hour and a half from my Sanghata village to get here,” says a worker, Ravi Prakash, who gets paid Rs 350 a day; those on the jhoolas get an additional Rs 100.
Ravi’s job mostly involves sitting on the ladders and holding the ropes from which the painters are suspended. “It’s a bit boring, but we have been strictly told not to use our phones or even talk to each other loudly because we have to stay alert in case the painter needs help,” he says.
At 2 pm, Jagganath asks the painters to get back to work, but some of them, still sipping tea and taking leisurely drags of their bidis, ask for an additional 10 minutes.
Heading back to the parking lot, Raj Kumar says, “We don’t have much time. As it is, every time the CM’s convoy enters or leaves, we have been told to stop work for nearly 30 minutes.” But CM Yogi Adityanath is away on a two-day tour of Mauritius and so, there will be no disruptions today.
By 4 pm, work slows down. There’s still an hour left for close of the day’s work. Forty-five minutes later, the labourers assemble near the parking lot and wash the paint off their hands.
Just then, Jagannath, who is taking stock of the paint brushes and buckets, yells out: “Four paint brushes are missing from the stock! You have left them on the terrace. Go and get them.” A few workers make a dash for the terrace and come back with the brushes.
Just as they leave, Jagannath turns around to look at the building. Does he like the new colour? “How does it matter? My job is only to get the building painted in whatever colour I have been told to,” he says.
A worker near him says, “Mukhyamantriji sab bhagwa pehante hain, isliye building ka rang bhi bhagwa ho raha hai. Magar accha lag raha hai, kuch naya colour hai (The CM wears saffron, so the building is also saffron. But it looks good, it’s a new colour).”