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Wednesday, December 01, 2021

Mahatma Swachh Bharat — Outside Yerawada jail: ‘I was a maid, a slave… this is far more respectable’

The Indian Express reporters fan out across the country to mark milestones in the Mahatma’s journey. To bring stories of the footsoldiers of Swachh Bharat, whose job it is to wipe, mop and dust where the Mahatma once walked.

Written by Anjali Marar | Pune |
Updated: October 3, 2018 12:17:25 pm
Mahatma Swachh Bharat — Outside Yerawada jail: ‘I was a maid, a slave... this is far more respectable’ Sangeeta Dhandore works through her morning shift outside the Yerawada jail in Pune. (Photo: Arul Horizon)

A FEW minutes into her afternoon break, Sangeeta Dhandore is on her toes again as a van loaded with 500 bricks arrives at her doorstep in the narrow alleyways of Pune’s Shantinagar. Her neatly organised home, with one room on the ground floor, is getting a bedroom next to the kitchen, which is the only structure on the first floor. “My two sons keep the house in order,” she says, while giving directions to a worker carrying the bricks inside.

For Sangeeta, cleanliness is a full-time job these days. A contractual worker since 2011, she is part of an 8,000-strong team under the Pune Municipal Corporation. And her work place for two days every week is the area outside the Yerawada jail, where Mahatma Gandhi was lodged in 1932. That’s where Gandhi signed the Poona Pact with Dr B R Ambedkar, putting in place the foundation of institutionalised reservation for scheduled castes in elected legislative bodies.

On Tuesday, the nation marked 150 years of Gandhi’s birth anniversary, and four years of Swachh Bharat, the flagship cleanliness drive launched in his memory — Sangeeta is the link on the ground.

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

At 6 am, every day, she is ready in a white summer coat over a grey saree, an orange dupatta pulled over her head, a pair of white gloves pulled on, a sack, a pair of cardboard sheets and a broom. “Most of the waste is created by fruit and vegetable vendors, and it is a tough job task to clean this the next day,” says Sangeeta, picking organic waste from the footpath with the sheets.

She gets busy for the next two hours, with 25 other women, her attention diverted occasionally by the mobile phone in the left pocket of her coat. Occasionally, she pops in a pod of clove from the right pocket. “I can’t carry water with me everywhere, so this keeps my mouth fresh,” she says.

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

The Yerawada jail has a ‘Gandhi Ward’ inside, comprising a few cells where the Mahatma and other freedom fighters were lodged. The ward is unoccupied and serves as a memorial to the national leader, but is not accessible to the public.

“We were once taken on a visit inside the prison,” says Sangeeta. But what she managed to catch a glimpse of was the cell in which Sanjay Dutt, the Bollywood actor, was kept. “I saw the cot and other items used by Sanjay Dutt,” says Sangeeta, who has attended school till Class V. “But yes, people talk about Swachch Bharat, and it feels good to be a small part of it.”

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

Permanent staffers of the municipal corporation are entitled to health schemes and retirement benefits. They also get an annual allowance of Rs 700 to buy brooms. But Sangeeta is a contractual employee, and gets Rs 7,000 per month if she is present on all working days. “I have to spend my own money to buy brooms. Every time I visit the Yerwada market, I spend Rs 200 on brooms. Our brooms do not last beyond three days,” she says.

At 8.30 am, a municipal garbage van pulls in, and Sangeeta pulls out her phone to look for messages or missed calls. There aren’t any. Turning around, she spots her younger son, Vijay (22), down the road. Having studied till Class X, Vijay works as cleaner at a theatre.

“For the last one week, the workload has increased, so he accompanies me in the morning to help me out. We work together till 10 am. But he is not paid,” she says. Sangeeta’s elder son is a budding property dealer, while her husband is a peon at the State Institute of Educational Technology.

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

Shortly before 10 am, Sangeeta gets on a scooter with Vijay to reach a building nearby where her supervisor is based. It’s meal time for her, while Vijay leaves for the theatre. Sangeeta and her colleagues then get back to work, cleaning the rest of the allotted areas. The supervisor rides on a bike alongside them, giving instructions. They are done by about 12.50 pm, a few minutes before their shift officially gets over, and gather under a tree near the PWD quarters next to the jail.

At home, inside the less-than 100 sq feet room on the ground floor, Sangeeta gives credit to her family for turning a tin-shed house, which was gifted by her parents, into a concrete house. But it desperately needs an expansion, she says, as the two children of her sister, who died recently, have moved in.

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

On Tuesday, a ceremony to pay tribute to Mahatma Gandhi was organised at the jail’s Gandhi Yard, a set of prison barracks where he was lodged. This time, an exhibition of posters of films based on the Mahatma’s life was also organised in association with National Film Archives of India for the inmates.

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

For Sangeeta, it meant “additional cleaning duty on the jail road”. “Sometimes, the women in this area mock me for the work I do, and I feel bad. My work should be appreciated. But you know, I used to work as a domestic help earlier. It felt like being a ghulam (slave). This is far more respectable,” says Sangeeta.

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


In 1932, Mahatma Gandhi was lodged in Yerawada jail during the civil disobedience movement. That was also the time when the British proposed a separate electorate for “depressed classes” for elections to the provincial and central legislature. Strongly opposed to the idea, Gandhi went on a fast. Meanwhile, B R Ambedkar, who was not averse to the idea of a separate electorate, was unhappy with the low number of seats being reserved. Through the Poona Pact signed on September 24 that year, Gandhi and Ambedkar agreed to have a substantially higher number of seats for scheduled castes but without a separate electorate.

Read more stories from Express’ series Mahatma Swachh Bharat 

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