Monday, 9 am, it is time. In one hand, he carries a broom. In the other, a bucket, a mug and a wet cloth. He begins with the floor. Once that’s done, he looks up at the statue of the bespectacled man, touches his feet. He then climbs on the pedestal, washes the statue, cleaning every inch with a piece of cloth.
Every day of his life, Ram Nath Ram does what he calls “Mahatma’s work”. And every Monday, this is his homage to Gandhi.
With October 2 marking the 150th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi, Ram, a Group D Senior Safai Karamchari with the Railways, is one of the thousands of workers who define ground zero of Swachh Bharat, the national cleanliness campaign that turns four in five days.
Ram’s work place is Motihari Railway Station where, on April 15, 1917, Gandhi stepped off a train in Champaran to be met by thousands of aggrieved indigo farmers, setting off a series of events which would lead him to stay in the area for several months, be arrested, fight for their rights, and launch the Champaran Satyagraha.
Among the regulars at the station, there is much debate on the spot where Gandhi’s foot first landed. “But in my head, every metre is a step he took. I am proud that I clean the ground he walked on,” says Ram.
The 46-year-old’s day begins at 6 am and ends 12 hours later, except for an hour’s break between noon and 1 pm. He begins with the public restrooms, four in all, using the same broom, bucket and cloth but with the addition of a mop and phenyl. He sweeps the floor, then cleans it and the urinals with phenyl, water and the mop. Then there are the three waiting halls, including one for VIPs, and two platforms, where he repeats the routine until his grey uniform is stained with sweat.
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Ram first came to the station as a casual labourer in 1996. Eight years later, he was made “permanent”. There were four other permanent staffers at the time, he says. Today, he is the only government safai karamchari left — the ten others with him are contracted to Shree Gajanand India, a private company.
He speaks to them with authority, barking out orders, his years of experience telling. “Why are you stopping now? Take a break after the Muzaffarpur train comes. Not till then,” he shouts at two.
Gandhi, meanwhile, is a presence on the walls of “Bapudham Motihari Railway Station”, too. Every inch is covered with murals of events in his life, photographs describing the Champaran movement, copies of letters, and a giant TV screen that switches between railway timetables and Swachh Bharat videos.
At 10.15 am, a train from Muzaffarpur pulls in, bringing a gust of wind and chaos. Ram waits next to a drinking water station he has just cleaned, watching people carelessly crumple and throw packets of plastic. “This is the mindset we have to change. Why do people think that someone else will be there to clean up after them? Gandhi told everyone to begin with themselves,” he says.
Over the years, Ram has earned respect. As he walks briskly around, he is greeted by administrative staff, policemen, and shopkeepers. Some shake his hand, others hug him. In 1996, he earned Rs 750 a month. In 2004, when he became a government employee, he got Rs 8,000. After several pay commission revisions, he now earns Rs 32,000 a month.
“I am a Valmiki, and I know India is not perfect. But even this respect that I get, is because of my work, and Bapu. If he hadn’t shown the way for Dalits and the poor, even this would have been impossible,” he says.
From Dalit basti to Railway quarters
Barely 3 km away, it’s not so perfect at the “Dalit basti” where he lives. Ram lives in a ramshackle one-room house with his wife Kiran Devi, and 19-year-old Sunny, one of his three children. Ram’s father was a sweeper, and two of his sons — Vicky and Sunny — are sweepers, too, at private companies in Motihari. Vicky, 21, stays in the same basti with his wife and three-month-old daughter.
The basti has 300 families, and he stares when asked how many of them clean for a living. “All of them,” he says.
The streets are narrow and cramped, women and children spilling out. There’s sewage all around. Outside Ram’s home is a pool of black water and garbage. His Swachh Bharat toilet is on the other end of this sludge, with two big stones in the middle to create a path.
“There is no sewage system here. So we clean, but when it rains, this happens. Nobody has the luxury of studying. I had to drop out after Class 10 because I needed money. My children had to do that, too. We have nothing of our own, because this is government land. And when you need work or money, the only immediate option for us is to find work as sweepers,” he says.
But Ram is hopeful. After 22 years of service, he has been promised a railway quarter right next to the station. That two-bedroom residence has been empty for over two years, and every day for half-an-hour, during his lunch break or after work, Ram removes the cobwebs inside, cuts the weeds outside and clears the drains.
“It will be allotted in a month. I will bring my family here and make my little grand-daughter study and go to college… Yes, this is closer to my place of work, too,” he smiles.
On April 15, 1917, Mahatma Gandhi arrived at Motihari railway station to take up the cause of aggrieved farmers forced to plant indigo crop by the British. He went on launch the Champaran satyagraha, his first widescale movement. Asked to leave by the British, he refused, leading to his arrest. He gave a rousing speech in court and was released, with the British including him in a probe panel that ensured the abolition of the exploitative practice.