For 42-year-old Budh Nath, it’s that time of the year again. With a broom in hand, he walks down the muddy ‘kuchha rasta” leading to Gandhi Dham, on the banks of the river Sutlej. He picks up a heap of plastic bottles, disposable plates, some chips packets and other waste strewn across.
Budh Nath, a contractual worker with the local Municipal Council, has been cleaning Gandhi Dham since the past three years. Twice a year, from September 25 to Mahatma Gandhi’s birth anniversary on October 2, and from February 5 to 12, a team of MC workers is deployed to clean the memorial erected at the site from where the Father of the Nation’s ashes were immersed in the Sutlej on February 12, 1948.
The memorial stands on a concrete platform in a kanal of land. It comprises two concrete columns, connected to each other with two decorative arches, and two slabs, on which are etched ‘Bapu’s eleven principles’ in Hindi, English, Punjabi and Urdu.
“I haven’t studied beyond Class 7. I cannot even read what is written on this memorial, but it is something related to Gandhi ji. I respect him for what he did for our country. He got us aazaadi. Nahi taan ajj vi assi ghulam hundey (Otherwise we would have been slaves till now),” says Nath. This is all that he knows about Gandhi, he says.
He lists all that he has done to clean up for a possible visit by a politician to the memorial on October 2, it being Gandhi’s 150th birth anniversary — overgrown shrubs and wild grass have been removed; the memorial podium has been freshly whitewashed; garbage strewn around has been lifted and the place is being cleaned daily. Lining the place with choona (chalk dust) and cleaning the dust off the memorial will be done on the morning of October 2.
“Cleaning and sweeping is not that easy as it is being shown. I wish it was as easy as getting photos clicked with a broom. Those getting photos clicked and shouting ‘Swachh Bharat’ should use a broom for more than five minutes on a road and then speak. Bathing in dust to keep public places clean is not that easy as being projected,” says Nath.
“People think we are not humans, that we do not feel the dust in our eyes or the pain in our arms as we sweep. But when it comes to cleaning Gandhi Dham, I have always done it with heart, not as a burden or job compulsion. This is the least that a less educated man like me can do but this is my small tribute to Gandhi,” says Nath, whose wife Neetu Devi too is a cleaner
Picking a heap of disposable plates, Ram wonders if ‘educated’ persons are really respecting Gandhi when they ignore a dustbin even if it is placed a few steps away. “Some educated people ignore a dustbin even if it is lying just two steps ahead. They close their eyes and throw trash outside it or near it. They know there are people like us who will pick it up for them because it is our job. We are meant to do this. But then how are they ‘educated’? Is this how Gandhi wanted our countrymen to be?,” questions Nath.
He is paid Rs 7,600 a month and with his wife’s Rs 2,100 a month, the couple are raising two children and managing to send them to a private school.
“We are earning less than even Rs 10,000 a month of which Rs 2,500 goes as school fee and tuition fee for both children but then that is the most important. I do not want them to become a sweeper like me or my father who too was a sweeper. You can say ‘Swachh Bharat, Swachh Bharat’ but who really respects us? No one,” says Nath who on routine days works eight hours a day sweeping around Phillaur.
According to his 12-year-old son, Priyanshu, his father does ‘ganda kaam’ but that is what is sending him to school. “I know he works hard for us, but I don’t like him picking trash and mopping roads. It is ganda kaam. I will at least study this much that we come out of this profession,” says 12-year old as the father adds, “Issi gandey kaam naal tussi school jaane ho putt. (This dirty work sends you to school).”
“For three years now we are cleaning Gandhi Dham but never took it as something being imposed on us. It’s not just something I do as a job, I feel I am doing sewa for him. There cannot be any better way of giving shradhanjali to Gandhi than cleanliness. If Gandhi ji’s ashes were immersed here, then I am sure he must be feeling happy and blessing us. I wish his blessings gets my job regularised so that I start getting at least 15,000 a month. I do not like when my wife also sweeps roads. My mother too was a domestic help. There was no other option as we were very poor,” says Nath.
“Gandhi had stood for people like us who clean and sweep, but are still treated as dirty and unclean people. Some persons cover their face and nose when they walk near us…..But that’s okay. It is their small thinking against what Gandhi preached. Right now my priority is to provide for my family and this ganda kaam is the only thing I have in hand,” says Nath.
Gurbinder Singh Atwal, 67, founder, Mahatma Gandhi Peace Mission and a local resident says the memorial was originally spread over 45 kanals, but only one kanal remains because of encroachment. The area is surrounded by slums. It gets few visitors other than on special days.
“Every year we put up barbed wires and saplings to protect whatever remains and they are stolen or uprooted. Despite multiple complaints to administration and police to get encroachments removed, nothing has been done. Earlier freedom fighter Ujagar Singh Bilga used to take care of it and even organise a Sarvodhya Mela here every year but after his death no one cared, not even Congress leaders. Now we organise a small programme and call children from orphanage to pay tributes to Gandhi on October 2 and February 12,”says Atwal.
Narinder Goel, president, Municipal Council, Phillaur and a senior Congress leader, claims that Punjab Khadi Mandal is responsible for maintaining the memorial. “It is just as a courtesy and respect for Gandhi that we deploy our sweepers.”
Varinder Sharma, Deputy Commissioner, Jalandhar, says, “It is not our responsibility to maintain the memorial site. I have never attended any official programme at memorial or even seen the site. It is just for reverence of Bapuji that MC sweepers are deployed there to clean the place. Otherwise, it is responsibility of Punjab Khadi Mandal.”