Indian Express Stories of Strength

Facebook and The Indian Express bring you a series on those at the forefront of the fight against the pandemic. From healthcare workers to government officials to innovators — a look at their day at work, their struggles and challenges.

Temporary job, permanent hero: How a safai karamchari saved the day at an Assam hospital

When no one came forward, he was the first to volunteer to clean the COVID-19 ward in an Assam hospital. A month later, all he wishes for is one thing: a permanent position in the hospital he has cleaned, day in and day out, for more than a decade.

May 12, 2020 11:35:18 pm

GUWAHATI: The day Tulu Basfor became Facebook famous, among the scores of congratulatory messages was one panicky call. “People at the market are saying you have tested positive,” came his mother’s harrowed voice from the other end.

Quarantined at a hotel in Assam’s Goalpara district, Basfor hadn’t seen her in two weeks. “I am quarantined, that does not mean I am positive,” he had said, “Don’t listen to others. I am fine. You don’t take tension.”

‘Don’t take tension’ — it was something the 31-year-old Basfor had been telling himself too.

Especially during the seven days in April, when he would put on a Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) suit, and walk gingerly into the COVID-19 ward of the Goalpara Civil Hospital, where three patients, infected with the novel coronavirus, were admitted. Once inside, he would mop the floors, dispose off used cutlery and disinfect the bathrooms.

It was a job literally no one wanted to do. Yet, on that day when the entire janitor staff of the hospital flatly refused to “clean any COVID-19 ward” for the fear of contracting the virus, it was Basfor who stepped up. “I will never forget the day — the staff gave in their resignations and I was in a fix,” says Monikuntala Choudhary, who was briefly filling in as the Superintendent of the Goalpara Civil Hospital at the time, “That is when Tulu Basfor saved the day.”

‘I never thought I would do this….’

Even in pre-coronavirus times, in a busy hospital — buzzing with nurses, doctors, patients and relatives — the role of a janitor, or safai karamchari, is probably the most unsung. Yet, they are vital to its functioning.

It was with this thought that Varnali Deka, the Deputy Commissioner of Goalpara district, decided to dedicate one post of their Facebook page to such voices. “In a bid to recognise these efforts by anyone at the frontline, we decided to highlight their stories on Facebook,” she says.

On April 8, as part of the Goalpara district’s ‘Heroes of the Day’ initiative, Basfor’s frowning face popped up on the administration’s official Facebook page. A short description below his photograph read in Assamese: “As a cleaner of Goalpara civil hospital, Tulu Basfor has been extending his precious service to the isolation wards of the three Corona positive patients in Goalpara. Despite being exposed to danger and vulnerable situations, he has relentlessly provided his quality service and maintained cleanliness and hygiene in the isolation wards.”

Messages started pouring in. “Of course, those who did not know better spread rumours that I have tested positive. But other friends called to congratulate me,” says Basfor, “Some wrote on my picture: ‘Jai Hind’. I felt very proud and happy.”

Later, during his 14-day mandatory quarantine period, it was these wishes that would keep him going. “I never thought I would do this… such a big virus. Who would think it would come to our Goalpara?” says Basfor, who has studied up till Class 10.

Tulu with his wife and son, a few months old

When his father suddenly passed away in 2006, Basfor then 17, managed to fix a job for himself as a cleaner at the Goalpara Civil Hospital, a 200-bed government-run hospital in Goalpara district about 150 km from Guwahati. “It wasn’t a proper job — neither was he permanent, nor was he contractual. But it was like an arrangement with the hospital,” says an employee from the Goalpara Civil Hospital, on the condition of anonymity.

For years, Basfor worked as a janitor in the ophthalmology department’s operation theatre. “He is not on the rolls but his salary is pooled from the donations and tips from nurses, doctors and patients.” says Superintendent in-charge Choudhry, adding that Basfor is extremely poor.

More than a decade has passed like that, and this is how Basfor has got by. “I earn about Rs 2,000 to Rs 2,500 per month,” he says, “It is hard but I manage.”

However, when the lockdown was announced in March, Basfor started panicking. “No patients would mean no tips. That would mean no salary,” he remembers thinking. Just last year, he had a baby boy.

In the first week of April, when Goalpara district reported its first three cases, Basfor learned that the permanent staff had refused to clean the COVID-19 wards. “It was then that I volunteered,” says Basfor.

The doctors explained to him that he would be wearing something called a ‘PPE’ and that it would protect him. And all through, Superintendent in-charge Choudhry stood by his side, encouraging and supportive.

“This is what gave me courage,” he says, “And of course, I desperately needed the money too. Now maybe, they will finally give me a permanent position.”

Just last week, the hospital authorities informed him that the moment the National Health Mission (NHM) Assam has an opening, they will forward his name. “I hope that happens, I really want to be a permanent safai karmachari. It is a big deal for me,” he says.

‘It was unbearably hot inside the PPE’

During his time in the ward, Basfor worked through a 7 am to 2 pm shift, most of which he spent in the full PPE suit. “It is unbearably hot inside. Sometimes when I just couldn’t bear to be in it any more, I would go to the doctor and ask if I could take it off,” recalls Basfor, “But since these suits are not reusable, they advised me to wear the suit the entire time till I finished my work.”

“I would go in wearing such a scary-looking suit, so I thought if I greeted them, and told them I was from Goalpara too, they might feel better.”

He would begin the day by mopping the floors with disinfectant. “Then when I was throwing away their used plates, I would carefully tie it up and sprinkle disinfectant on it,” he explains.

Entering the ward, he recalls how he would see the three patients on their respective beds, many times wondering aloud when they would get out. Thus, on many days, the cleaner says he took it upon himself to make conversation — albeit from a distance.

“I would ask them ‘Are you okay?’ ‘Do you need anything?’ No one asked me to speak to them but then they were from Goalpara too, and so was I,” says Basfor. “I would go in wearing such a scary-looking suit, so I thought if I greeted them, and told them I was from Goalpara too, they might feel better.”

“He is possibly one of the best workers we have,” says Superintendent in-charge Choudhry, “We had informed the health minister Himanta Biswa Sarma about him, and we immediately decided to pay his Rs 1,000 per day for the week he was on duty.” When he received the remuneration, says Choudhry, there were tears in Basfor’s eyes.

Having finished his mandatory quarantine period and tested negative for the virus, Basfor is now back home, reunited with this wife and one-year-old son.

“I actually did it for them,” says Basfor. But perhaps he does not know it himself, he also did it for humanity.

A previous version of this article erroneously said Basfor was paid Rs 1,000 for a week of services. The correct figure is Rs 1,000 per day. The error is regretted.

Also in this series: A Karnataka NGO bridges gap between rural public and the govt with hands-on initiatives