As a young boy growing up in the tiny hamlet of Dharmata in Baberu tehsil of Banda district, Uttar Pradesh, Naresh Kumar Chamki was used to being called 'Mehtar'" a caste of sweepers " by the upper class. The school dropout opted not to become a sweeper in his village and turned to other jobs, but he couldn't shake off the title. Until Sunday night, when villagers started calling him "Nareshji". The 32-year-old landless daily wage labourer was among manual scavengers from the Scheduled Caste felicitated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi during his visit to Kumbh Mela on 24 February. The occasion left them a memory to last a lifetime, after Modi washed their feet, wiped them dry with a towel and felicitated them by giving them angavastrams.
However, despite the symbolic elevation of their social status, all they want is permanent jobs. "I have been flooded with phone calls from villagers," said an elated Naresh. "The problem of untouchability is a big issue in my village, so those who'd never spoken to me, are calling me Nareshji."
"Everyone wants to know what conversation I had with Modiji," he added. Naresh has been entrusted with the task of cleaning Sangam Nose and receives Rs 340 per day, which is credited in his bank account by the health department every 15 days. His wife Naki Devi, 30, also works as a manual scavenger in Sangam Nose. They live with their four children in the Sanitary Colony, a temporary arrangement made by the Kumbh Mela administration.
"He asked how cleaning work is going on at the ghat, to which I replied 'it's good'. Then he asked whether it's cleaner than the previous Kumbh or magh mela, to which I replied 'yes'," Naresh said. He added that he would keep the angvastram till his death.
Naresh, who lives in a thatched house back home, expects that his life will change after his meeting with the prime minister. "I want a job. We rarely get this (Kumbh Mela) sort of work... Can this meeting help in getting me a job?" Naresh asked.
Which was also the query of 35-year-old Horelal, a sanitary worker who hails from Darhata village in Sambhal district, who was also felicitated by the PM at the Kumbh Mela. Horelal is a construction worker in Sambhal city. A contractor sent him and his wife to the mela as manual scavengers. Horelal said after the prime minister washed his feet, he felt guilty. "How can such a prominent person touch our feet? I am feeling bad that I allowed him to do so," said Horelal, attired in his work outfit which has the tag Swachhata Doot (ambassador of cleanliness).
"Whenever I recall that moment, it feels like a dream," said Horelal, who cleaned the Sangam Nose, Triveni Road and Sangam Chowki area at the Kumbh Mela. Horelal has also worked in Noida and Delhi, and is among a group of labourers regularly employed to work in the NCR region and nearby district for months.
Horelal takes his wife Rajkumari, 32, and three children with him. "We don't own any plot or farm land, and spend our lives like vagabonds. Now, Modiji has spoken to me, so can I get a job? If not, then recruit us as permanent sanitary workers," said Horelal.
Pyarelal, 45, and Chaubi, 35, from Banda, and Jyori, 25, from Korba, Chhattisgarh, also expect that "something will happen", after Modi washed their feet. "We don't dare to even dream of Modi touching our feet so this is something I will remember all my life, and hope that some officer will soon recruit us as permanent workers," said Chaubi. Modi, while addressing the workers, hailed them as "karmayogis", and added that by maintaining cleanliness in the Kumbh Mela area, they have shown that nothing is impossible.
The author is Allahabad-based freelancer and a member of 101Reporters.com