Pyare Lal hasn’t taken off the “gamcha (scarf)” Prime Minister Narendra Modi gave him. Hori Lal says every time he closes his eyes now, he dreams of the moment Modi bent down and washed his feet. Then, reality hits.
As the Kumbh draws to a close on Tuesday here, the five minutes the PM spent with them on February 24 still linger on for the five sanitation workers at the Mela. As does the regret that they didn’t get a chance to talk to him properly — to ask for a salary increase, a pucca job, a machine to do the work they do. Hori Lal, 35, came to work at the Kumbh Mela from Dhoraita village of Uttar Pradesh’s Banda district. He recalls with fascination the hour he spent with the four others in a locked room waiting for the PM to arrive, and the camera flashes that went off as he washed and wiped their feet. “We had been told he would meet us, not that he would wash our feet,” he says. It was embarrassing to have such “a big man” wash their feet, Hori says, adding that he had taken a “thorough” bath that day.
Belonging to the Valmiki community, Hori has been here since November with his family, including wife Rajkumari (32), and sons Amit (15), Akash (12) and Kapil (10). The children go to an anganwadi school at the mela while Rajkumari also works as a sanitation worker.
This is Hori’s fourth time at the Kumbh as a sanitation worker — he mostly works as a mason back in the village – and he doesn’t remember any moment like February 24’s. “He (Modi) is a great man,” he says. But while he is grateful for the “honour”, Hori says, “There is no difference in our lives. We were doing this cleaning work before too, we continue to do it.”
He doesn’t like what he does, Hori adds, taking a break to smoke a beedi. “I don’t like moving place to place for work. Kaam kuchch bhi ho, pucca hona chahiye. Pradhan Mantriji agar naukri de dete toh sahi hota (One can do any work, only it should be permanent. If the PM had given us a job, that would have been great).” Even a salary hike, from Rs 310 a day, would go a long way, he says.
Meanwhile, Hori looks forward to a break these days, for a nap. “Sapne mein wahi mauka dikhta hai jab saare camera humara photo le rahe thay jab (In my dreams, I see the moment when all the cameras were taking our photo).”
Showing the cream scarf he hasn’t taken off since that day, Pyare Lal, 40, wishes they had got more time with Modi. Recalling their initial “shock” and the “honour” they felt when the PM washed their feet, he adds, “He met us hardly for a minute. I didn’t get a chance to talk properly.”
A daily wager, Pyare has been working as a sanitation worker at the Kumbh since November — his sixth visit to the Mela. He came here with his wife. The two have eight children, including three sons who also work as daily wagers. Stressing that the pay is not enough, Pyare says, “Our salaries should have been increased by the PM. We leave our homes and come here.” This time when he returns though, he will have the gamcha as memento. “Bas yahi saafa toh nishani hai ki main unse mila (This is the only proof that I met the PM).”
An agitated Jyoti Mehtar says they should be paid at least Rs 500 a day. The 21-year-old is on her first visit to the Kumbh, along with husband Bablu (23), who is also a sanitation worker. “There is no comfort in this work,” she adds, sitting in the tent allotted to her whose entire space is taken up by jute bags spread out as a sheet and their clothes.
Jyoti is also angry because she feels the media distorted what she said after meeting the PM. But she does wish she had told Modi about their woes. “He is such a big man, how could I have just said something?”
She wanted to ask him for a job, Jyoti adds. “Woh kuchch bhi kar sakte hain. Samman se rozi nahin chalti hai (He can do anything he wants. One can’t earn a living with honour alone).”
And she wanted to ask him to end manual scavenging. “One should not have to enter sewers to clean other people’s shit. Why should a human do what a machine can?” Jyoti says, heading to the chulha as her husband asks for lunch.
A daily wager who makes do with odd jobs, Naresh Kumar, 28, came to the Kumbh from Banda district’s Narayanpur village in October. His father worked as a sanitation worker at the Mela too, till he stopped due to old age.
The father of three sons and a daughter, Naresh feels the government ignores poor people like them. One of their biggest issues, he adds, is caste. A Valmiki, Naresh says, “We have been doing this work and will continue to do it.”
The PM washing their feet was a huge honour, he adds. But he wishes he had got a chance to say anything, to ask the government to increase their salaries, end chua-chhoot (untouchability). As the others around him nod in approval, he adds, “Desh mein badlaav aana chahiye, woh aa nahin raha hai. Gareeb aur pichda aadmi dikkat mein hai (There should be change in the country, that is not happening. The poor and backward are suffering).”
Chaubi, 34, and Amreesh Kumar are at the Kumbh with their two sons and a daughter. The eldest, Arun (18), is also working at the Mela as a sanitation worker. Recalling the day she met the PM, Chaubi says she woke up early, took a bath, and reached a hall in Sector 1 by 11 am. “Then we waited. He (the PM) came in the evening,” she says, looking at her husband for approval. He is wearing the gamcha given by the PM that day.
Chaubi, who makes straw baskets for a living back in Banda district’s Majhila village, says she has been coming to the Kumbh to work for 20 years and this was the cleanest.
Butting in, Amreesh says while Chaubi did not say anything to the PM, he would have if given a chance. Not happy, Chaubi, her eyes fixed on the floor, says, “Jab wahaan hote toh pata chalta. Total 5 minutes ke liye mile woh hum paanch logon se (If you had been there, you would have known. He met the five of us for 5 minutes)… Instead of Rs 15,000 a month, we should get Rs 20,000. The PM should do something.”
About how she was picked, Chaubi says the selection was random but police did go to their villages to check if they had a case against them. “I haven’t even seen a thana. How can there be a police case?” she laughs.
But there were other conditions. Dr Ravindra Kumar Tyagi, a medical officer of the state Health Department overseeing Sector 3 at Kumbh, was one of those involved in shortlisting the sanitation workers. “We were given some instructions,” Tyagi says. “They should be healthy, should not have a police case against them. Some were dropped because they had stained teeth or consumed alcohol or gutkha.”