At the end of his lunch hour, Parashuram Gangaram Sungar, 70, likes to feed the fish in Belagavi’s “Congress Well”, which was dug in 1924 to provide drinking water for those attending the historic 39th session of the Indian National Congress — the only one presided over by Mahatma Gandhi.
“The well has never dried up in the last 94 years,” says Parashuram, mashing a leftover roti from the “dabba” his wife has packed, sprinkling small pieces in a corner, bringing a swarm of mahseer to the surface.
It was in 2002 that a memorial to mark the INC session took shape around the well in this north Karnataka town bordering Maharashtra. Since then, Parashuram has been cleaning the “Congress Well Park” in Belagavi, then called Belgaum, which now includes a small, circular room — a museum centre showcasing photographs from the life of Gandhi and the event.
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One image shows Mahatma Gandhi arriving at the location accompanied by Jawaharalal Nehru and Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel. Another fading photo shows him addressing the session after being appointed as the president. There are also pictures of Gandhi in his younger days and of his wife Kasturba.
“Gandhi was shot the year I was born… by Godse, a man from Maharashtra where my family hails from,” says Parashuram, a Marathi-speaker from an SC community whose family settled down in Karnataka a few decades ago.
With October 2 marking the 150th birth anniversary of Gandhi, and four years of Swachh Bharat, the cleanliness campaign launched in memory of the Mahatma, Parashuram and his colleague Prakash Patil, the gardener, are busy trying to ensure that the park and museum are in shape.
Every morning, Parashuram, a father of four, leaves home at 8 am and cycles 15 km to get to the park around 9.30 am. On arrival, he goes to a small, dark room located in a corner of the museum, adorned by pictures of Dalit icon Dr B R Ambedkar, and changes into a khaki work shirt. The small room is also where the work tools are kept — brooms, mops, cleaning liquids, garden scissors.
While the park opens at 6 am for people to walk, exercise and meditate, work begins when Parashuram arrives. Armed with a broom and a mop, he sweeps and swabs the museum hall before turning to the garden spread over an acre.
He starts with the area around the benches, where visitors leave behind paper and plastic, ignoring the three dustbins placed across the park. On days when the lawn is being mowed by a staffer sent by the city corporation, Parashuram gathers the cut grass and piles them in a bag with a tall garden broom. Then, it’s time for lunch — rotis and dal from that dabba. His afternoon shift starts soon after he feeds the fish, smokes a beedi outside the park, and relaxes for a while.
“Very few people visit this place for its historic significance. It is mostly casual visitors… students, elderly local residents. But every October 2, a programme is held here to mark the occasion,” he says.
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Though the Congress has a historical connect to Belagavi, the party has ceded its hold over the region to the BJP and the regional Maharashtra Ekikaran Samiti. Today, it is a divided house with rival factions warring for control — the district office opens only for press conferences and meetings.
“In fact, if you ask for the Gandhi museum here, no one will know. You need to say ‘Congress Bowdi’ (open well) on Congress Road… When someone shows interest in the museum, I let them look around even when the park is closed,” he says.
Parashuram is a Class VII dropout, and has been working as a cleaner all his life. “I used to work in the office of the deputy commissioner. Over the last 12 years, I have been taking care of this park, employed by a private contractor for the corporation… No, I don’t get any benefits apart from my salary,” he says.
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But he has “always” been a Swachh Bharat advocate. “I have been doing this work all my life, even before people began calling it Swachh Bharat. Cleaning is my livelihood,” he says.
The work that leaves him drained every night earns him only a fixed monthly salary of Rs 10,000. “But it is crucial to the survival of my family. My eldest son died at the age of 32. He left behind a family of two children and his wife. I have three other children — a son and two daughters. My younger daughter is unmarried. I am a dadaji as well for five children,’’ says Parashuram.
The family lives in a rented two-room house and is sustained by Parashuram and his second son who does odd jobs. “Some government schemes, like the supply of free rice and grains, help us make ends meet. But I am not complaining because I am still earning for my family,” says Parashuram.
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From the Congress Well, Parashuram also releases water to surrounding localities on the direction of local authorities. “The water is used for non-drinking purposes. It is sent via pipes to street taps for about an hour a day,” he says.
Around 5.30 pm, Parashuram changes back into his clean, cream shirt and climbs his blue-seated cycle to return home. “It is far outside the city, but I am used to it now,’’ he says.
Mahatma Gandhi presided over a session of the Indian National Congress, the vehicle of India’s freedom struggle, only once. He had earlier led the Khilafat and non-cooperation movements (1920-22) before he was arrested and sentenced to prison for six years. He was released in early 1924 after which he chaired the session in Belagavi — then called Belgaum — that December. It marked the beginning of the next phase of Gandhi’s non-violent struggle. Gandhi devoted the next six years towards programmes aimed at communal unity, removal of untouchability, promotion of khadi and village industries, prohibition, and sanitation.