BEADS OF sweat trickling down her face, she leans on a five-foot makeshift broom made of bristles tied to a police lathi, stares at the pile of dry leaves in a corner and looks up to the darkening sky. A faint smile, and the broom is moving again, faster, a little careless even.
It’s past 7 am. “I love the rain, except between 6 and 10 every morning. If it rains now or the wind starts blowing, all my work will be wasted,” she says. Swachh Bharat part I
Days to go for October 2 and the 150th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi, 65-year-old Malti Devi is among the thousands of workers at the frontlines of Swachh Bharat, the flagship cleanliness scheme launched on Gandhi Jayanti four years ago.
She is also the only one responsible for cleaning the Chauri Chaura police station in eastern Uttar Pradesh’s Gorakhpur district. Chauri and Chaura are the names of two villages, but they are also two words that scarred a nationwide movement launched by the Mahatma 98 years ago. “My grandfather always talked about it,” she says, “They called it ‘baees ka kand’ (the incident of 1922).”
On February 4, 1922, two years after Gandhi launched the Non-Cooperation Movement, police opened fire at volunteers participating in a non-violent civil disobedience rally in Chauri Chaura, killing three. In retaliation, a mob set fire to the police station, leaving 23 policemen dead. Eight days later, his vision seared by the violence, Gandhi suspended the movement.
In 1924, the British built a new, fortified station. And since then, amid a series of transfers and changes, Chauri Chaura has had a few constants — Malti, who started cleaning the premises in 1983, is one. She is employed as “casual labour” with her Rs 600 monthly wage logged in the local police accounts book.
“I am just a safai karamchari but this police station depends on me… I work with my husband Moti. He was born in 1947. He had a job earlier at the tehsil office but we work together at the police station,” she says.
Every morning at 6, armed with that broom, Malti starts with the main courtyard of the 10-man police station, which includes the SHO’s office, record room, lock-up and Malkhana. Then she moves to the yard outside the residential quarters of the SHO and three other personnel, a kitchen, a guest room, a computer room and an assembly area.
Malti sweeps and piles up the trash, and Moti, a retired Class IV employee, helps in filling the four trash cans on the premises. The policemen clean the floors inside the rooms, but that still leaves Malti with a task she hates — cleaning the two separate bathroom blocks for males and females. This, she does with a bottle of phenyl and a bucket. And that broom.
“I made this broom myself. I needed something that can sweep leaves, paper, sand and pebbles. The broom from the market will not work, it is too weak. It takes four hours to clean the station, and I need something with a longer handle so that I don’t have to bend so much,” she says.
But today, there’s no bathroom duty, the station has run out of phenyl. “I cannot buy the cleaning liquid, they (police) give it to me. They have asked me to go home early,” she says with a smile.
Home is a two-room brick house with a tin roof in Bal Bujru village, 2 km from the police station which serves several villages in the district. A Dalit from the Basphor sub-caste, Malti says she and her family clean the street outside her home. But on this day, her family — five children, four grandchildren — is taking a break from work.
“We refused to let our children do what we do. We saved some money, and using my husband’s pension of Rs 5,000, bought a small cycle rickshaw. My three older sons use it to to collect waste and sell it to a scrap dealer,” she says.
Malti is an innovator of sorts, too. Around her house, light bulbs housed in plastic soft-drink bottles are hung upside down. After several bulbs exploded in the recent rains, Malti says she found three 2-litre bottles, cut them in half, and drilled small holes in the bottom.
Money remains a constant worry. “My salary of about Rs 20 a day is nothing. It was just Rs 5 a day about three years ago. If cleanliness is so important, why shouldn’t people like us who actually clean every day get a little more?” she says.
As of now, her response to the meagre pay is simple — work harder. After the station, she cleans a doctor’s clinic and a few other houses, from which she earns an additional Rs 1,000. “I got married early and had children soon after. I never had the chance to school. But I want my grandchildren in school. Just because we have nothing doesn’t mean we stop trying. We have to keep looking forward,” she says.
In 1922, the Chauri Chaura police station became an indelible part of the freedom struggle. On February 4, 1922, volunteers participating in Mahatma Gandhi’s non-violent civil disobedience movement clashed with local police, which fired into the crowd leaving three dead. In retaliation, a mob forced the police to retreat to the station. Then, it locked the station and set fire to it, leaving 23 policemen dead. Eight days later, Gandhi suspended the movement across India. After a trial, the British hanged 20 accused and handed life terms to another 15.