He bends softly,curving his back a little. And then like an artist,his hands move in a slow swish,deftly touching the floor with his long broom,blowing a mist of dust into the air that settles on the stained dull white walls and on his face. He makes another sweep,then another and sets into a rhythm.
Then he takes up a long wooden pole with a damp cloth at one end and swabs the floor wet,ensuring it is not slippery. Mushtaq Ahmad Sheikh knows how to do it well. This has been his routine for 19 years and he has mastered the art.
He gathers his tools and walks off through the long corridors of the Shri Maharaja Hari Singh (SMHS) Hospital that he has known for long and become intimate with. He has seen the once sparkling white walls get stained and turn dull,he has seen the heaters,iron pipes and window grills rust,he has seen the once “mirror like” floor turn grey,he has seen mounds of garbage get bigger,he has seen wild grass and garbage replace the lovely gardens and lawns.
Sheikh says he has been witness to the decay of the valley’s premier General hospital whose floors he has swept and whose walls and bathrooms he has cleaned for two decades. And it wounds him down to his soul,he says.
“This hospital is my shrine. It feeds me and my family. At times I weep to see it in this condition. It is like a man watching his child die in his own arms,” he says,looking down the long dingy corridor. And he understands the tragic comparison well. Three years ago,Sheikh lost his 4-month-old son.
Sheikh,33,first came to the hospital with a broom as a teenager in early 1990 in place of another sweeper,who had gone on leave and was later appointed as a sweeper on ad hoc basis. “My salary was thirteen hundred and thirty rupees. I was unmarried then and the money was enough for me”.
Those were the times when guns had blown apart the calm and Kashmir had embraced the armed rebellion. “Militancy had just started and to keep me from joining the militants,my father who was also a sweeper in the hospital helped me get a job here,” he says,his sunken eyes holding images of a distant time,a time when SMHS hospital was not in a mess.
“It was so clean you could eat on the floor. It was like a mirror,you could see your face in it. Attendants of the patients slept on the floor in the corridors,” he recalls the good old days. “We also worked hard to keep it clean. It made us happy”.
So what went wrong? “The apathy of the administration to the issues of sanitation,” he says promptly. “They don’t even bother”. Then he explains the details.
“When I first came here,the hospital had two sweepers for every corridor,two for each small ward and four for bigger wards like ward 16. We worked under the guidance of three Jamadars. There was also a sanitary officer who oversaw the work,” he says.
“Now we have one sweeper for each ward and one for each corridor. There is no sanitary officer and only one Jamadar,who controls everything,” Sheikh draws the comparison.
Even the quality of the cleaning materials,Sheikh says,has gone down. “Detergents,phenyl,caustic,lime and even the brooms that we get these days are of poor quality. We asked the authorities many times to replace these materials but they didn’t listen because they make money out of it,” he says.
How can the things be set right again? “As long as the administration doesn’t take interest in sanitation,nothing is going to change,” Sheikh says. And here is his prescription to clean up the hospital. “Bring more sanitation workers and make them work. Give us good quality detergents and modern cleaning tools like vacuum cleaners and washers. That is all”.
Sheikh pauses and takes a deep sigh. “Give me ten people,good quality caustic and detergent and good quality swabs; I will make the hospital sparkle in a week,” he says. Anybody listening?