At 16, he didn’t have a dream. A manual scavenger at the Mysuru railway station, Narayana didn’t dare think beyond the present. He would scoop the excreta from the railway track, carry it in a bucket on his head and dispose it of. Even on his way home from work, the stench kept him company—an invisible wall blocking his view of the future. “My eyes welled up the first time I picked up excreta. The smell was stomach-churning,” recalls Narayana, who was born in the scheduled caste Madiga in Karnataka.
The slum where he lived with his parents and six siblings was noisier than the railway station. Street fights were common—women fighting like wild cats over tap water; men involved in drunken brawls. Silence eluded the nights here. The noisy, action-packed nights, however, turned out to be a blessing for Narayana—they made it easy for him to ignore the hunger pangs. “Both my parents were safai karmacharis [cleaning workers] and they struggled to make ends meet. In the evenings, my mother would work as a maid. In case she got some leftovers, we would have it for breakfast and lunch. Sometimes we would have just one meal a day,” says Narayana, a class ten dropout .
Today, Narayana, 60, is the chairman of the Karnataka State Safai Karmachari Commission. He draws a salary of Rs1 lakh a month and has been given a sprawling air-conditioned room at the commission's headquarters in Bengaluru and a Toyota Innova. He is also a former mayor of Mysuru.
But he can never afford to be complacent. The living conditions of safai karmacharis in the state are miserable and appalling, he says. He has already visited 25 districts after taking over as chairman eight months ago. “I have been trying hard to improve their lives,” says Narayana. “Most of them still live in shanties, with inadequate access to clean drinking water or sanitation services. They are socially, educationally and financially backward. The government schemes do not reach them.”
Narayana is particularly moved by the plight of contract labourers—35,000 of 85,000 safai karmacharis in the state. He filed a case in the High Court to rein in contractors who have been ruthlessly exploiting labourers. He is hopeful that the contract system will be scrapped in all urban local bodies soon.
Owing to his eight-month stint as a manual scavenger, Narayana is able to relate to their condition. His pay then was Rs180 a month. Later, he got a job at a factory making Ideal Jawa motorcycles, as his mother knew the public relations officer there. But before the job offer, he was asked to work at the officer's home for three months. “My duties included cleaning the toilets, sweeping and mopping, bathing the dog and taking it out for a walk,” says Narayana. He would get food, but no salary. The officer was a Brahmin, and the women in his family would fling food at Narayana. He also worked in a silk factory to earn some money.
At the end of three months, Narayana was offered a job in the factory. Barring the dog duties, there was not much change in his job profile; the only plus point being his salary—Rs22 a week. Daily, he would walk to the factory, about 8km away from his home. In 1978, Narayana became a permanent employee at Jawa, with a decent salary of Rs1,800 a month.
But, Narayana continued to fight for the rights of safai karmacharis in Mysuru. He vehemently opposed the move to evacuate them from the slums. “I was imprisoned four times,” he says. Finally, the government built 6,000 quarters for the safai karmacharis.
During the course of his social work, Narayana developed a rapport with Siddaramaiah, now the chief minister of Karnataka. Siddaramaiah sensed his commitment for the poor. “Siddaramaiahji has always been kind to me. He is my political godfather,” says Narayana, who went on to become a corporator and mayor of Mysuru in 2000. And, life, as he knew it, changed. “After I became the mayor, I once had lunch with one of the women—who threw food at me from a distance—from the Brahmin family I worked for. We ate at the same dining table,” he says.
As mayor, he led the Dasara procession on a horse. Dasara celebrations are a grand affair in Mysuru. On the tenth day of the festival, the idol of the Goddess Chamundeswari, placed on a 750kg throne, is mounted on a decorated elephant’s back, accompanied by horses, camels and elephants. “Amid all the pomp and grandeur, I terribly missed my parents. Earlier, after the Dasara procession would pass by, they would clear the animals' dung from the road,” he says. His parents are no more—early victims of their work, says Narayana. His wife, Jayamma, and son Jayaram and his family still live in a humble quarter in Mysuru, allocated to his mother years ago. He visits them over weekends. “Though he gets to spend very little time with us, he takes care of each and everything,” says Jayamma. The initial years of their 34-year-long marriage were anything but rosy, but Jayamma stood firm by his side.
Narayana’s tenure as chairman of the Safai Karmachari Commission ends next year. The association has quasi-judicial powers, and Narayana has been a nightmare for corrupt officials. He was furious when the Central government withdrew Rs250 crore of the Rs300 crore it had allotted to the states for the welfare of safai karmacharis, citing under-utilisation of funds. He wrote to the Central government to return the funds and take stringent action against officials who failed to do their jobs.
A few months ago, Narayana made news when he locked horns with Hephsiba Rani Korlapati, the Mangalore City municipal commissioner, who refused to visit the quarters of civic workers. Korlapati said she would verify the files and visit the quarters later. Narayana didn’t budge; he warned her that he would report the matter to the state government.
Though Narayana has high regard for Prime Minister Narendra Modi, he holds a deep grudge against him. “There are 12 lakh safai karmacharis in the country. They are the ones who keep India clean. The celebrities wielding brooms [promoting the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan] will put them down once the crowd disperses. So Modi must acknowledge the safai karmacharis and ensure that they get their due,’’ he says.
Narayana now dares to dream big. “I want to see cleaning workers live with dignity,” he says. “Machines might take over cleaning jobs in the future. But would safai karmacharis be ever free from the stigma?”