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I was in a hurry and Ramu Kaka won’t let me go. “Yes Kaka, I know breakfast is the most important meal of the day”, gulping the glass of milk in one go I ran towards my car, holding the crisp toast in-between my teeth. Had received a call from the office and somehow I was supposed to be the last minute choice for a guest lecture aimed at a bunch of volunteers from an NGO that wanted to undertake some kind of research about the manual scavengers and sanitary workers in the society. And in case you have, by some miracle, been able to lay your hands on those new futuristic SIM cards, then you pretty much by now know what the call drop and inter-connectivity issue is all about and how the Digital India dream is unfolding, like we all know what Tennis Elbow means once Sachin Tendulkar caught it .

So you would understand how much I could have heard and understood about the topic, But this was an opportunity I had been waiting for a long time and could not let it go no matter what . I was determined to nail it but did not know how. And the last thing I needed to inspire me was a pile of garbage near my parked car, stinking of diseases it could spread, forcing me to throw the bread which was still stuck between my teeth and had forgotten to nibble on. I had shown my resentment and protest by aiming the bread toast on that very mountain of filth.

I jumped into the car and zipped past the dogs who by now had started fighting over my meal and tuned into news on radio. Uri had witnessed yet again a terrorist attack and our soldiers had proudly given their lives to save ours. How little we do for our soldiers and how much they sacrifice for us. And at this time I would have loved to present a lecture on Indian Army and its role. How easy it would have been to talk about their contribution and how visible was their sacrifice for all to see. But as always, with my luck, I was stuck with an issue that had hardly anything glamorous or thought provoking about it.

Thinking cap on, I had to cook up something and cook up pretty fast. I knew sociology was the domain to look for and social stratification was the precise ground zero. Could faintly remember what Talcolt Parson said about social stratification, thanks to the Gol Gappa wala outside my college gate. ( Kids, it takes more than gulping gol gappas to become a chief minister. In case you were wondering.)

But for Mr. A. S. Rana, my sociology teacher, who cared less about what the modern day psychological theories profess about techniques of teaching and educating, would pull hard on my ear and then scream into it, ” every society considers certain things important, certain virtues necessary and rewards the members that excel in those qualities, dreaming about gol gappas is not one of them”, and then he would pull again and tweak my other ear too, ever so hard. He was right and so was Parson. We value our freedom hence we reward our soldiers, venerate them for their efforts and for their sacrifice. A natural corollary to this argument is that unless we value cleanliness, reward it as a virtue , uplift the section of the society that is responsible for keeping us and our surroundings clean and free from diseases, Swatch Bharat Abhiyan would remain a dream. At best a photo opportunity for politicians on Gandhi Jayanti.

Report after report has brought out the startling facts that these unsung heroes of our society sacrifice their lives to save our. Enlisting the number of diseases or mentioning the number of casualties this force suffers while saving us will only serve to belittle their selfless efforts.

What makes the issue complex in case of India is that caste adds another dimension to the issue. Most of the manual scavengers, sweepers , cleaners , sanitary workers , belong to lowest caste strata, the Dalits , the untouchables, destined and designated by religion to perform the Polluting jobs so as to keep the upper castes Pure. Another downside, almost 40 % out of these are women, a factor that gels perfectly with caste to create a wall, like the one Donald trump is aiming to built, which stops any sincere effort or govt. policy to cross over towards this section of the society.

With all these thoughts I entered the conference hall and paced to the Dias, almost running, excited, for I knew what I had to say about these soldiers, soldiers who fight within our borders, against an enemy that is not two, ten or twenty in number but in trillions of trillions. I knew if they stopped fighting for us and protecting us, the epidemic that will result will leave nothing alive on the mainland for the soldiers on the borders to save. One epidemic and the result would be so devastating that even nuclear weapons would be dwarfed in comparison, one breakout and the entire human race gets wiped out. I knew while protecting us these soldiers lose their lives to deadly diseases yet there will be no state funerals, no streets named after them , no national outrage , no Petrol
Pumps allotted to the families of these martyrs. The least I could do in return was spare a thought to their plight.

On reaching home I felt little light, tranquil, at peace with myself, as if some heavy weight had been lifted of my shoulders and I realised that the garbage pile from the roadside had vanished too. Some one had cleaned my mess again …

P. S. : # Pani puri

(The author can be reached on theowl@paigaam.in)