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This is the test sanitation workers passed to get their feet washed by PM Narendra Modi

PM Narendra Modi washed the feet of five sanitation workers at the Kumbh Mela in Prayagraj this weekend.

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Lucknow: The five sanitation workers felicitated by PM Narendra Modi at the Kumbh Mela in Prayagraj this weekend were shortlisted after they were found to satisfy a whole range of criteria, which included awareness about programmes like the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan.

On 21-22 February, Uttar Pradesh government officials deployed at the Kumbh were informed that the PM would be felicitating a few sanitation workers and interacting with some others.

“As this news reached sanitation workers, most of them wanted to be felicitated by the PM because they felt that they will be given some benefits or prizes for their work,” said a health department official who was part of the selection process.

“Not many sanitation workers were interested in the interaction,” the official added.

The criteria for selection had been provided to them. They included awareness about the government’s schemes on open defecation and sanitation, a varied age and gender bracket, their “articulation skills”, and their work at the Kumbh, an official in the Uttar Pradesh government said.

“We were told to ensure that these five people belonged to different age groups and included men and women. These people had to have a certain degree of awareness about government schemes around sanitation and open defecation, as well as some work experience,” the official said.

“We needed people who were able to articulate respectfully in front of the PM and not those who would disrespect him or create a scene,” the government official added.

These parameters were met by five men and women — Jyoti (25) from Chhattisgarh, and the remaining four from Uttar Pradesh, Hori Lal (33), Chaubi (38), Pyare Lal (45) and Naresh Kumar (30).

“We decided to select those who work in the Sangam area of the Kumbh because they are the ones who do the most work,” said A.K. Paliwal, additional director of the Uttar Pradesh Health and Family Welfare Department, Prayagraj division.

“The toilets in Sangam area… were used the most and require more work than other parts. This is because everyone who comes to the Kumbh goes to the Sangam,” Paliwal added.

Also read: By washing feet, PM Narendra Modi was honouring himself not safai karamcharis

Hesitant honourees

Hori Lal, one of those felicitated, said they were informed about their selection Friday. “We had a meeting on 22 February and our names appeared on the list,” he added.

On Sunday, when the sanitation workers reached the venue where their interaction with the prime minister was scheduled to take place, they were asked to change their footwear, said Kumar, another of the awardees.

“We had been wearing boots given to us by the administration. Some people from the department gave us slippers and we wore those…” he added.

“We had not washed our feet, hands or face because we did not know that this was going to happen. Had I known that the Prime Minister would clean my feet, I would have definitely washed them myself before meeting him,” Kumar said.

According to Lal, as they were asked to take a seat, they noticed plates, lotas (tumblers) and a bucket of water, but were clueless at the time about their exact purpose.

“We were sitting, waiting for the PM, when we saw them… We thought that those would probably be given to us as gifts. But then we were told that the PM will be washing our feet,” said Lal.

He added that the five of them got very uncomfortable then. “We protested,” he added.

The sanitation workers were asked to stand up when the PM arrived, greet him with a “namaste”, let him wash their feet, and answer his queries.

“We followed these instructions when the PM arrived, but we were hesitant to let him wash our feet. We told him so, but he requested us to not resist,” said Kumar.

“He asked us where we were from, for how many years we had been visiting the Kumbh Mela, and if we had seen any improvement or deterioration in the Kumbh over the years,” he added. “He also gave us shawls. We were with the PM for less than five minutes,” he said.

“I felt I was in a dream,” said Lal. “Never has a prime minister or a chief minister done such a thing for us. He has given us respect and we cannot forget that. We will support him.”

Also read: Want justice, not PM washing feet, say sewer cleaners at Jantar Mantar protest

Hope of better days

The brief meeting with the PM and his gesture not only overwhelmed the workers, but also stirred hope that their lot will change for the better.

The income for sanitation workers, said Lal and Kumar, was irregular as they were forced to juggle odd jobs in the absence of a permanent job.

“We have been here [in Prayagraj] since October last year. The Kumbh mela will get over in March and we will not have this regular source of income [anymore],” said Kumar, a Class VIII dropout.

“Most of us go will go back to our villages and take up odd jobs as daily-wage labourers in the village or cities for the rest of the year,” he added.

At the Kumbh, he said, sanitation workers earned around Rs 300 a day, but their earnings otherwise were often half that sum.

“I get Rs 150-200 per day as a daily-wage labourer when I work in the fields or at a construction site. This work is erratic,” he added. “I wish the government could give us regular jobs.”

Lal echoed him. “We work as beldars (labourers) on daily wages. Sometimes, when I am under a contractor, I get monthly jobs where I get a salary of Rs 8,000. But this depends on our luck and the nature of the contractor’s assignment,” he told ThePrint.

“The PM has given us so much respect, I hope the government also gives us permanent jobs.”

Jyoti, a Class VIII dropout and one of the awardees, said if she ever got a chance to meet and interact with the Prime Minister at length, she “would request him to give us small jobs so that we don’t have to run from pillar to post to make a living”.

Kumar said he wanted to raise the issue of a regular source of income with the PM at their meeting Sunday, but his nerves got the better of him.

“I was surprised by the PM’s gesture and I was actually very scared. I could not speak about this to him.”

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