As a young girl, Sandhya Nikhare wanted to be a teacher. Then in 2003, her reality framed by her four-year-old son, a lengthening separation from her husband and a subject, English, to clear her Bachelor of Arts degree, Sandhya Nikhare wrote a number of entrance exams for government jobs. She was selected for the post of a Lower Division Clerk in Manipur, about 2,500 km from her hometown Bhandara in Maharashtra, where her parents were handloom weavers. With her family horrified by the distance, she let that opportunity slip away.
In the 150th year of Mahatma Gandhi’s birth, employed as a chowkidar-cum-sweeper at the Jawahar Navodaya Vidyalaya in Wardha, the town in central India where Gandhi unveiled his ‘new scheme of basic education’ at an all-India education conference in October 1937, she rues the BA she never completed. She is now among the thousands of workers at the frontlines of Swachh Bharat, the flagship cleanliness scheme launched on Gandhi Jayanti four years ago.
Wardha: where Mahatma Gandhi set up his sevagram ashram
Sandhya Nikhare, 42
Job: Chowkidar-cum-sweeper at Jawahar Navodaya Vidyalaya
Salary: Rs 25,000
Work Hours: 11 hours (6 am to 5 pm)
Off day: Sunday, and half of Saturday
Cleans: School corridors, offices, 2 toilet blocks, girls’ dormitory building
“Had I taken up that job in 2003 and completed my BA, I would have been much better off,” says Sandhya, 42. Eventually, it was only in 2013, 18 months after the death of her long estranged husband, who was a mess helper at the Navodaya school, that she was granted Group D employment on compassionate grounds.
Run by a Central government undertaking, Navodaya schools have all undertaken cleanliness programmes as part of the Swachh Bharat programme. At Wardha, principal R Nagabhushanam says all 500 students as well as teachers and other staff regularly clean the school themselves.
But Sandhya sees her work as Gandhian in a much more fundamental way. Her own work is important, she says, but not just because it’s about cleanliness. “Hard work in any field, to struggle and to persist, that’s what Gandhiji taught, right?”
That Wardha is home to a host of Gandhian institutions, including Sevagram Ashram, where the Mahatma lived for eight years, does not mean much to her. She first learnt about Gandhi in Class III or IV.
“The thing that makes me truly happy is the fact that my struggles were not meaningless. I was married before I could complete my graduation, but having seen my struggles as a single mother, my family made sure the other girls were financially independent. So my cousins are all well settled, one is a lecturer, one is in the medical field, others have good jobs,” she says. “That gives me great satisfaction.”
Sandhya starts work at 6 am, tidying the offices, gathering trash from bins, making sure the entrance and concourse are spotless. She then rings the 7 am prayer bell by striking a little hammer against a metal sheet hanging by the stairway.
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It’s time to return home briefly after that, a 200-metre walk to a squat two-room house that stands alongside other staff quarters in the 35-acre campus, past rows of neem and mango trees, behind hibiscus and rose bushes. She busies herself in the kitchen, fragrances from her roti-sabzi-dal lunch wafting out to meet the morning’s birdsong. Her son Himanshu, 19, is up, checking phone updates. By 10, he’ll eat an early lunch and leave for college in Sevagram, 2 km away, on his scooter.
Himanshu, a second-year student of civil engineering, acknowledges that their life turned a corner when his mother got the job, with free accommodation and admission for him into one of Maharashtra’s best Navodayas. “In Bhandara, whether you’re the son of a weaver or a Group D worker or an affluent person, your expectations of yourself are limited. It is after coming to Wardha that my dreams grew,” he says.
Himanshu was 14 years old then, and only did Class 9 and 10 from Navodaya, struggling to make the transition from Marathi-medium to Navodaya’s ‘semi-English’ pattern where math and science are taught in English.
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Sandhya belongs to the scheduled Halba tribe, but Himanshu doesn’t have the caste certificate, so he competes in the open category. That hasn’t stopped him from making plans for a shot at the UPSC and MPSC (Maharashtra Public Service Commission) exams after his engineering, and a second shot after undergoing coaching, if his first attempt fails.
Back at work a little past 8 am, Sandhya gets down to the day’s toughest job, the toilet blocks on the ground floor. She connects a hose to a tap outside and lets the water run while she wears a cotton mask and collects a hard broom, plastic bucket, phenyl and mop. The latrines have to be hosed down and brushed clean with the hard broom. As she works with the broom in the girls’ toilet block, she leaves the hose running inside the boys’ toilets, then uses a hard brush and broom to scrub the floor.
Next, the drinking water stations are hosed and wiped and the passage mopped before the entire process is repeated upstairs. This will take up most of her time before lunch hour at 1 pm. When she returns in an hour, she’ll clean the toilets in the girls’ dormitories.
Sandhya is the school’s solitary safai department staffer, besides a man who has been employed on contract. The school restocks cleaning supplies regularly, including white phenyl, floor cleaning liquid, Dettol, detergent, mops, brooms, gloves and brushes.
At the 1937 Wardha Education Conference, Gandhi had presented a detailed vision of reorganising primary education, including free and compulsory education for seven years, a move away from English, and a focus on learning through crafts. In an authoritative article in the Harijan weekly, Gandhi wrote of learning spinning and sandal-making, an art that “does not exclude a knowledge of history and geography”.
Gandhi’s vision has probably touched her life in some ways. She has not visited a tailor for years, cutting and sewing her own saree blouses on the pedal-run Usha sewing machine standing by the door at home. She also knows how a loom works, where the best cotton comes from, what Bt cotton achieved, and what a cooperative society model can do for a business.
While her monthly salary of Rs 25,000 has not permitted any luxuries yet, she’s hopeful that the opportunities Himanshu has had will change their lives in some ways. She’s been a late entrant into the contributory provident fund scheme and the National Pension Scheme – Navodaya schools do not offer staff pension.
“A good education for Himanshu was my dream. The other thing I’ve always wanted to do is to see the beauty of nature in the best parts of Maharashtra and India.”