As the President’s House gears up for Monday’s swearing-in, Jagat Singh is putting in extra hours to get the fountains up and running before the big day. He takes a break only to see Narendra Modi in person
He does not exactly stand out in a crowd but Jagat Sharma is not your ordinary contractor. His work schedule mirrors the country’s political and diplomatic calendar. For days ahead of US President Barrack Obama’s visit to India in 2010, he had been exceptionally busy. And now, with days to go for the May 26 swearing-in ceremony of Narendra Modi at the Rashtrapati Bhawan forecourt, he has been spending close to 12 hours a day in the blazing May sun to get the fountains on either side of the famed Jaipur Court up and running smoothly before the big day.
The 51-year-old has been working as a contractor in Rashtrapati Bhawan for close to 20 years now, having done myriad jobs in the sprawling estate and the 340-room mansion. He holds the annual contract for watering Mughal Gardens, does all the maintenance work in the fountains on the estate and takes up electrical contracts as and when they come up. He remembers how busy the humungous garden at the back of Rashtrapati Bhawan had kept him ahead of the visits of US Presidents Barrack Obama and Bill Clinton. Besides, he has done electrical work in the President’s living quarters — something he is clearly proud of.
“My interest in electrical work is what got me into this field in the first place. Before this, I used to work as a newspaper distributor. The electrical wiring in the President’s living quarters has been done entirely by me,” he says, taking breaks in the conversation to supervise his men who are cleaning the fountains before installing new nozzles.
It is an emergency work — he was called in suddenly on a day when seven of his men have reported sick. But he knows this work cannot wait. So every once in a while, he takes the shovel and lends a hand to his men.
Ask him if all this will be done in time and he says, “You should come back and see tomorrow morning. All this will be clean and ready to go. There is no room for slip-ups here,” he says. True to his word, a day later, the half of the fountain that his men had been working on, is all set. “See, I told you,” he says, beaming. “Even if (Modi) had taken oath tomorrow, we would have been ready.”
Just back from a mini break to see Narendra Modi, who had called on the President at Rashtrapati Bhawan and only just been appointed prime minister, he eggs his men on. There are very few people in this political celebrity-studded workplace of his for whom he takes a break from work. But he made an exception for Modi. “I had initially thought, what’s the point, he will be coming here every other day now. But my son kept calling me, so I went to see him,” he says.
His most frequent workplace — he does jobs outside too — may be the country’s best known address but Sharma remains untouched by the grandeur or the proximity to power. He admits he gets requests from relatives and friends to get things done but he has, over the years, mastered the art of turning them down. “I know who I am and where I belong. Every day that I work here, my men and I have to get a temporary pass made. What power do I wield?” he says.
All their growing years, his children were fascinated by the fact that he worked in the President’s house. But now that his elder son has started assisting him in the business, that aura is wearing off. “He used to work in Nigeria but I made him come back home because I am ageing and I need a hand.
Besides, everything is now online and I am not very conversant with the Internet. I needed help filling tenders. Now that he has been here many times for work, he knows this is just another workplace, nothing exotic,” he says.
Sharma has seen four Presidents in office, met most of them, including the incumbent Pranab Mukherjee, though there is usually very little interaction. But he can’t stop talking about how approachable A P J Abdul Kalam had been. “Kalam sahab was getting a guest room done in Kothi No. 2 and I had a request to make on behalf of a friend. His guards stopped me but he waved them aside and promised to meet my friend. He was an amazing man. There were absolutely no airs. I have never spoken to Pranab Mukherjee but what’s the hurry, both of us are here,” he says with a laugh.