Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s new anti-corruption vigilance campaign has made the word “chowkidar” a global Twitter trend. But what does it mean for the real watchmen who help India feel more secure?
On March 16, Modi launched a campaign called #MainBhiChowkidar or “I too am a watchman”, urging all Indians to serve as metaphorical guards against corruption. Soon, the hashtag became the top trend on Twitter and ministers and senior members of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party prefixed the word “chowkidar” to their names on Twitter to promote the campaign.
Since the weekend, the campaign has been a source of entertainment on social media and an opportunity for Opposition parties to poke fun at the BJP’s own corruption controversies. But just as Modi’s past references to “chaiwalas” and “pakora-sellers” put the spotlight on tea sellers and hawkers of batter-fried snacks, the prime minister’s “chowkidar” campaign has thrown the spotlight on another invisible blue-collar profession: the ubiquitous security guards who man the gates of establishments across the country for very little pay and often with very little sleep.
Do the actual chowkidars of India find it flattering or offensive that Modi has appropriated their profession for his campaign? Do they believe the #MainBhiChowkidar campaign will have any impact on their lives? What do they make of the past five years of the BJP government at the Centre? Scroll.in posed these questions to security guards around the country and received a range of diverse responses.
‘We are poor, we just go about our work’
Gunasekhar has spent the past 15 years working as a watchman in Bengaluru, the last two years at an apartment building in the Hennur neighbourhood. He had not heard of the #MainBhiChowkidar campaign or that the prime minister had referred to himself as India’s chowkidar till this reporter asked him about it.
“He is the prime minister and can do what he likes,” said Gunasekhar. “We are poor people and just go about our work.”
Gunasekhar, who just turned 60, has been struggling to start getting his pension. Since he works a 12-hour shift every day, he has not had time to get the paperwork done. He is paid Rs 9,000 a month and worries about money because of his health problems. He has had two cataract operations and said he has some trouble with his kidneys.
To people like him, it did not make much of a difference what party comes to power in the upcoming Lok Sabha elections, Gunasekhar said. But his main impression of the Modi government is not favourable. “After Modi came, we all had problems with money,” he said, referring to the demonetisation of Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes in November 2016. “What does he know of our troubles? He is somewhere there [in Delhi] and we are here.”
‘I would not want anyone to be a chowkidar’
Sagar Tiwari, Mumbai
“I saw on WhatsApp that Modi wants everyone to be a chowkidar, but I do not want anyone to suffer through this job,” said 25-year-old Sagar Tiwari, who guards the gate of a high-end restaurant in suburban Mumbai. “It is very difficult.”
A Class 9 drop-out, Tiwari left his village in Uttar Pradesh’s Allahabad (now Prayagraj) district at the age of 14 and has been working as a security guard in Mumbai ever since. “When I was young I used to do a single 12-hour shift every day, but after marriage, a man’s responsibilities increase,” said Tiwari, who now has to support his wife, two young children and his parents back in the village.
For the past five years, he has been working two 12-hour shifts every day – one at the restaurant during the day and a night shift at a gated housing society. He earns Rs 7,500 at each job.
“It is not possible for anyone to be awake for 24 hours, and I catch some sleep during my night shift, but people shout when they see you dozing,” said Tiwari. “Still, it is better than being a farmer. My parents make just Rs 20,000 a year in profits through farming. No one can survive on that.”
Despite the difficulties of his job, Tiwari is proud that the prime minister’s #MainBhiChowkidar campaign acknowledges the work of security guards. “Modi has done great work with building toilets in every village and removing black money,” he said.
Since Tiwari does not have an address in Mumbai, his voter identity card is registered in his village. “But I will definitely go home to vote.”
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‘Our lives are not going to change’
S Kuppan, Chennai
S Kuppan, 60, a watchman in a residential apartment in Royapettah in Chennai, claims he has only hatred towards Prime Minister Narendra Modi. “Can we even go near him?” he said. “It is funny to hear him call himself a watchman.”
A Dalit, Kuppan moved to Chennai in the late 1960s to escape poverty and untouchability in his village in Thiruvannamalai district in Tamil Nadu. “We could not even wear our slippers on the village streets back then,” he said. In Chennai, he pulled hand-rickshaws till they became an outdated mode of transport.
For the past 15 years, he has been working as a security guard – first with an agency and later on his own. “The agencies would pay us after taking away a portion of our earning,” he said. “I used to earn only Rs 5,000 per month and the working hours would stretch more than 12 hours. They were exploiting us so I started to look for a job on my own.”
In November 2016, demonetisation turned his life upside down. Just before the prime minister withdrew old Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 banknotes from the economy, Kuppan had received Rs 1 lakh in cash from a chit fund scheme operated in his locality. “It was one year of my savings,” he said. “It took me one month to get the notes converted into new notes.”
In that time, he lost a comfortable job that paid him Rs 8,500 a month. Though he found a new job as a watchman, he now earns only Rs 6,500 a month for a 12-hour daily shift.
He lives with his wife, who works as a house maid, in a rented house. “We have to spend Rs 10,000 a month on rent and power bill,” he said. “Our lives are not going to change whoever comes to power. We have to work to earn our livelihood.”
‘Might help bridge classist differences’
Akhilesh Singh, Lucknow
Akhilesh Singh, a 50-year-old security guard at a school in Lucknow, is of the view that the #MainBhiChowkidar campaign is meant to “guide the nation”. According to Singh, classist differences have been a part of Indian society for ages and he is hopeful that this campaign might actually help, however little, in bridging those differences.
Singh works eight-hour shifts and takes care of his four children. The youngest is in Class 12. He owns a piece of land in his hometown in Uttar Pradesh’s Basti district, which his brother looks after. “When I was younger, I used to work till 2 am,” he said. “I’d like to have more money but since I cannot work as much as I used to, we try and adjust our needs to whatever resources we have.”
Singh finds it hard to recollect how long he has been working as a security guard. “Seems like it has been forever,” he said. He was earlier employed as a private security guard with the same school, but when the system changed to favour security service agencies, he had no choice but to register himself with one.
“I am glad that the prime minister called himself a chowkidar,” he said. “I belong to the general category so I did not expect social benefits to percolate to me in just five years, but I’m hopeful that things will get better if Modiji returns.”
‘Government let Vijay Mallya run away’
Satpal Pal, Mumbai
Satpal Pal does not like being called a “chowkidar”, and is even more disgruntled that BJP politicians are calling themselves “chowkidar” for a political campaign. “It is good to be alert about corruption, but this government let people like Vijay Mallya and Nirav Modi run away,” said Pal, a 32-year-old security guard at a middle-income suburban neighbourhood in Mumbai. “It is a little insulting when these people call themselves chowkidar.”
Up till three years ago, Pal used to be a small landed farmer in his village of Ajaipur in Unnao district, Uttar Pradesh. When rising inflation made farming impossible to survive on, he left his large joint family and asked a friend to help him get a job in Mumbai.
“Being a security guard is a good job, but I do not want to do it for more than two years,” said Pal, who is paid Rs 5,000 a month for working 12-hour shifts, seven days a week.
Although security guards are given a shared room to live in at the back of the building, the wages are still too meagre. To earn an extra Rs 5,000 a month, Pal washes cars for building residents after his shift ends. “The main problem is that my contractor can fire me whenever he wants, so then I would have to look for another job.”
Pal does not plan to take leave from work to go vote in his village, but he hopes that the BJP does not win the 2019 general election. “Modi has not fulfilled any of his promises,” he said. “There is no achhe din. And in UP [Uttar Pradesh], [Chief Minister] Adityanath has only been dividing society.”
Pal says he wants Congress President Rahul Gandhi to be the prime minister and Samajwadi Party leader Akhilesh Yadav to become the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh.
And at his workplace in Mumbai, Pal wants people to call him “guard” instead of “watchman” or “chowkidar”. “Or better still, it would be nice if people call me by my name,” he said.
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‘Modi only poses for photos’
S Ramanathan, Bengaluru
S Ramanathan, 46, a security guard in Bengaluru, is bitter about the Modi government. When asked what he thought about Modi and his ministers calling themselves chowkidars and promising to safeguard the country, he said, “They only keep themselves safe. They don’t do anything for our safety.”
Ramanathan has only recently started in this line of work. He has his own jewelry store that he said is being run out of business by large jewellery chains. “I had to look for other work and this is the only job I found and was eligible for,” he said. After being recruited by a security agency, he works 12-hour shifts at a large apartment complex for which he is paid Rs 11,000 per month.
“What is there to say about Modi?” he asked. “If he had put the Rs 15 lakh in our bank accounts like he promised, then there would be something to say.”
Ramanathan is disillusioned and said that there has been no development in the last five years. Instead, people had to weather the blow of demonetisation. “People like us do not have that much money and for what little we have, they made us run around,” he said.
Ramanathan wants a change of government at the Centre this year. The only person he thinks makes any sense about politics is actor Prakash Raj who has announced that he will contest the 2019 Lok Sabha elections as an independent candidate. “Modi does not do anything,” said Ramanathan. “He only poses for photos.”
‘If not Modi, then who?’
Shyam, a 43-year-old security guard from Uttar Pradesh’s Hardoi district, supports Prime Minister Narendra Modi for a simple reason. “If not Modi, then who?” he said, standing outside a residential colony for government officers in Lucknow, where he works eight-hour shifts without any fixed timings.
“I did an evening shift yesterday and reached home at 11.30 pm,” said Shyam, who only wanted to be identified by his first name. “Today morning, I was back to work at 6 am. How am I supposed to do my job efficiently if I am not well-rested?”
Shyam is neither too thrilled nor unenthusiastic about Modi’s #MainBhiChowkidar campaign. “It is good because it brings attention to security guards, but if it does not translate into any benefit for us, I do not care much about it,” he said.
Other than the Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana that brought an LPG cylinder to his home in his village, he cannot think of any government welfare scheme that has benefited him.
Shyam believes that security guards are exploited by agencies, who do not give them permanent jobs and make them work without adequate rest, and he expects the government to intervene and do something about it. But he also believes that having a job is a privilege. “There are numerous unemployed young men in my village,” he said. “Modiji should do something about creating jobs. If I have a chance, I would like to do something more productive, something that gives me a sense of job security and also enough time to rest and sleep.”
‘It must be only to get more votes’
– M Aadimoolam, Chennai
M Aadimoolam, 71, works as a security guard for a Canara Bank branch in Gopalapuram in Chennai. He travels for two hours in the morning from his home in Thiruvottiyur in North Chennai to his workplace located in the central part of the city. He starts work at 6.30 am and leaves at 5 pm every day. “By the time I reach home, it is 7.30 pm,” he said.
A Dalit migrant labourer from Milam village in Tindivanam district in Tamil Nadu, he moved to Chennai in the early 1980s and started working as a coolie in the harbour for 10 years. Later, he worked with a security agency before he began looking for work on his own.
“I am earning Rs 7,000 per month now,” said Aadimoolam. “I have worked hard to educate my three children. Once I marry off my son I plan to go back to my village. It is too difficult to travel and stand guard every day.”
Aadimoolam, who did not have the opportunity to get an education, says he does not understand Modi’s #MainBhiChowkidar campaign. “If he says he is a watchman, then it must be only to get more votes,” he said. “He made us suffer during demonetisation and nothing has improved in our lives in the past five years.”