Why Pm Modi Washing the Feet of Sanitation Workers Is a Big Deal?


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This afternoon, Narendra Modi did something unprecedented; he did the padyapooja of five Safai Mitras, from the army of over 50,000 sanitation workers who toil day and night for the past few months in Prayag to ensure a Kumbh that is clean, safe and hygienic. I have been to Prayag, and have seen it with my own eyes how hard these sanitation workers work.

Every morning, noon and night a fleet of Safai Mitras would go on the rounds, collecting garbage, sweeping, cleaning ports-toilets soiled by people, picking up wrappers and bottles and emptying septic tanks with the help of a suction pump and a mechanised vehicle. Every person who has been to the Kumbh would tell you the same, that this Kumbh has been the cleanest ever, thanks to the unceasing efforts of a responsive administration and the untiring efforts of the sanitation workers.

Many of us sought out these workers while we were in Prayag and thanked them personally. Some of us offered them money. But none of us thought of touching their feet. PM Modi did!

In a country obsessed with hierarchy, caste prejudices, notions of high and low social status, this is a great gesture in humility, that a person holding the highest executive post in the country washed the feet of people who are considered to be at the ‘lowest rung of the society’, hitherto an honour reserved only for holy men, saints and one’s parents as per the Hindu tradition.

Yes, it is a symbolic gesture. It is a gesture that stands for humility, for accountability, of never forgetting one’s roots, of dignity of labour.

Yes, there will be enough naysayers who will call it a fake gesture, who will say he did for votes, who will call it another jumla. I have only one thing to say to them - why don’t you try it yourself?

Of all the things Narendra Modi has done since he took oath as the PM, this one has been a gesture that has moved me the most. Because it matters.

Before this, we only saw PMs who threw garlands at the lowly Junta standing far away from them, or the occasional roti eating sitting in a field with a farmer. We even saw a PM standing like a family servant holding a Mithai Ki Dabba as the memsahib graciously mingled with the unwashed masses. This is the first time a PM has treated the poorest of the poor like this, not merely as equals, but as his superiors.

We are lucky to have a PM like Narendra Modi!

Thanks to Shefali Vaidya for this wonderful piece.