Meet Gitaben, she keeps Mahatma Gandhi’s birthplace Swachh for Bharat, daily

Today marks the 150th birth anniversary of the Mahatma. And four years of Swachh Bharat, the national cleanliness campaign that was launched in Gujarat by the state’s then chief minister Anandiben Patel at Porbandar.

Written by Leena Misra | Porbandar | Updated: October 2, 2018 8:41:44 am
Gitaben takes a break near Mahatma Gandhi’s ancestral haveli. (Photo: Javed Raja)

When the breeze from the Arabian Sea brings in the smell of fish, and double-storey stone buildings with ornate roofs show up from inside Mughal-styled gateways with wooden balconies, you know you are in Porbandar, where Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was born in 1869.

Here, dawn breaks outside the Mahatma’s ancestral haveli with the faint sound of the dholak from the Vaishnav temple next door, blending with the swish on the street from the wooden bristles of Gitaben Harkhani’s broom on Kasturba Road. “I have been sweeping this road for the last 20 years. My mother-in-law brought me here for the first time, when I was married for two years,” she says.

With two sheets of formica doubling up as dust pans, Gitaben picks up the litter. (Express photo by Javed Raja)

Tuesday marks the 150th birth anniversary of the Mahatma. And four years of Swachh Bharat, the national cleanliness campaign that was launched in Gujarat by the state’s then chief minister Anandiben Patel at Porbandar.

Mahatma Swachh Bharat Part I | ‘I have been called a sweeper, it hurts… this is a temple, I am doing God’s work’ 

Inside the Gandhi haveli, renovated in 1950 and named Kirtimandir, the cleaning is handled by safai kamdars employed by a management committee. Outside, it’s Gitaben’s domain, with six green square boxes to segregate waste on her iron cart — plastic, paper, dust, cow dung, and more.

With two sheets of formica doubling up as dust pans, Gitaben picks up plastic pouches, styrofoam, and thin square pieces of crumpled polythene discarded by users of the popular mix of betel, lime and tobacco. Halfway down the street, municipal officers hand over yellow rubber gloves and surgical masks. “These are being distributed late today,” says Gitaben, slapping a lump of fresh dung on the plastic to keep it from flying.

The shift ends at 11 am, and Gitaben pushes the cart to a community bin at Sutharwada, a 10-minute walk from Kirtimandir. The bin, overflowing with garbage, stands between two buildings, the space packed with six-seater rickshaws. She pushes the cart to the next bin, about 50m away in the middle of a busy chowk from where a road leads to the erstwhile royal stables, a heritage monument closed to public.

Mahatma Swachh Bharat Part II | ‘I am just a safai karamchari here but this police station depends on me’

“I am proud to be a part of this safai brigade… for us, “Gandhiji is our rotlo (bread),” says Gitaben. Her husband Ravjibhai, 65, is a retired safai kamdar with the municipality and now a priest at a local temple of the Valmiki community.

The 1-km walk to Gitaben’s home in Nagindas plot takes about 15 minutes, when a 15-ft-wide street opens up opposite Memanwad, a Muslim locality. As Gitaben turns into a bylane about six feet wide, along open sewers on both sides, Amit Chudasama, the municipality worker who is cleaning her street, is busy with his own two pieces of formica and a gunny sack.

The bylane has 50 houses on both sides, all double-storeyed, with water tanks and piped water. And with just three hours to go for her next shift, a shower is the first thing on Gitaben’s mind as she steps into her house, which she shares with Ravjibhai and their 17-year-old son Kushal. Gitaben’s daughter Varsha is married with two daughters of her own, and lives on the outskirts of Porbandar.

Mahatma Swachh Bharat part-III: ‘Why do people think that someone else will be there to clean up after them?’

Outside the Gandhi Haveli, it’s Gitaben’s domain, with six green square boxes to segregate waste on her iron cart — plastic, paper, dust, cow dung, and more. (Express photo by Javed Raja)

Gitaben is on the municipality’s rolls and earns Rs 24,000 a month. The sole breadwinner of her family, she gets only Rs 14,000 in hand because of a loan of Rs 50,000 she took from her Provident Fund for her sister-in-law’s wedding. She has not availed of any government scheme, but did apply for an Aadhaar card about four months ago. “I am still waiting to get it,” she says.

At home, an induction cooker is placed on a plastic chair, with two potato halves underneath to keep it steady. Her two-storeyed home has one room on each floor with a kitchen on the ground floor, and two bathrooms. There’s a TV, with steel boxes, pots and plates on the shelf running across the four walls on the ground floor, and a washing machine outside a bathroom on the floor above. “The food we eat is rightfully ours because we have given our lives to the service of our Gandhiji,” she says.

Mahatma Swachh Bharat part-IV: ‘What makes me happy is the fact that my struggles were not meaningless’

The work is hard, says Gitaben, but her shift outside Kirtimandir is “a huge relief”. (Express photo by Javed Raja)

Her son Kushal, however, strikes a different note. He gave up studying after failing to clear Class X. A keen follower of local news on his smartphone, he is a fan of Patidar leader Hardik Patel, and Independent MLA and Dalit leader Jignesh Mevani. Asked what he plans to do in life, he snaps: “Safai (cleaning)… Where are the jobs available anyway?”

But Gitaben is unfazed. At 3 pm, she gathers with the other safai kamdars at the gadhaiwada, a former cow shelter, where the supervisor takes a photo of them on his phone for “attendance” before cleaning duty is assigned.

Mahatma Swachh Bharat part-V: ‘I have work to do… I keep the temple clean, I keep my house clean’

The work is hard, says Gitaben, but her shift outside Kirtimandir is “a huge relief”. “We use the bathroom inside to freshen up, or go in just to drink water,” she says. “Unlike the world outside, there’s no discrimination inside.”

Mahatma Swachh Bharat part-VI: ‘Born in year Gandhi died… cleaning all my life’

On Tuesday, she will start early, at 5 am, with Chief Minister Vijay Rupani arriving at Kirtimandir three hours later to attend the annual Gandhi Jayanti prayer meeting. Gitaben is excited and plans to wait opposite Kirtimandir until the event gets over. “This will be the No.1 road in Porbandar tomorrow, you wait and see,” she says.

Porbandar

On October 2, 1869, Gandhi was born in a three-storey haveli in Porbandar to Karamchand and Putlibai Gandhi. Karamchand, his father and grandfather were prime ministers to the Jethwa rulers of the then princely state of Porbandar. The haveli was later bought by Nanjibhai Kalidas Mehta who renovated it, naming it Kirtimandir, while preserving the original structure. The foundation of the present day structure was laid in 1947, and it was inaugurated by the then Union home minister Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel in 1950.

Read more stories from Express’ series Mahatma Swachh Bharat 

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