Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath’s government has planned this year’s Diwali celebrations in Ayodhya on a scale set to surpass its two previous editions in terms of grandiosity: a Guinness world record number of 5.5 lakh diyas are set to be lit on the Sarayu river for the traditional Deepotsav, the water around the Ram ki Paidi Ghat will be pumped through a specially created water pump; a grand palace-like stage will be set up at the Ram Katha Park. All this at a total budget of 130 crores. This time around the state government has also decided to take the onus of the expenses on itself, and not on the Tourism Department.
Meanwhile, on the 15th of this month, 25,000 Home Guards employed by the State Government were laid off. Financial constraints and an inability to comply with the Supreme Court’s order to pay the Home Guards a salary at par with a police constable has been cited as the reason for this by the government.
When we asked the BJP MLA from Ayodhya, Ved Prakash Gupta to explain how budgetary constraints for paying salaries make sense in the face of these big-budget celebrations, he responded, “This expense is for people’s cultural and spiritual advancement and therefore necessary. The state government has already stated that no one has been removed from their jobs. Development does not just mean brick and mortar. In this country, it means making the Gods happy and this is what the government is working towards. Hence, the money that is spent is very well spent.”
It has become almost a norm in the past few years for state government spokespersons to react with nonchalance to such serious matters involving the question of justice. However, we delved deeper into how this move affects thousands of families who have been robbed of their only source of income.
“You can understand what our situation is in these hard times,” said Ravikanth Tripathi, a home guard from Varanasi, who is in his late 30’s. “Only we know how we were managing our children’s school fees, our parents’ care and barely running our households in the salary that we were getting. We could barely manage earlier so it’s too difficult to think about how we will manage now when this monthly amount stops coming. There are around 42,000 of us who have lost or have a reduced income now. On Diwali, the Yogi Adityanath has presented us with Diwala (bankruptcy)” he added.
Responding to a civil appeal filed in 2015, the Supreme Court in July 2019 had stated that the Home Guards could not be considered regular appointees of the police force, but they should be paid at par with the salaries of a police constable. Their earlier stipend was Rs. 500 which was then raised to Rs. 672 as per the Supreme Court’s orders. The Home Guards, in fact, were deployed by the Home Department only about a year ago to fill the vacancies in the police department. Now, the government has also reduced the working days for the Home Guards from 25 to 15, further affecting another 99,000 Home Guards.
For some, it is as drastic as death. “This is the only employment we have had for years, and with advanced age and limited skills, in an already overburdened job market, there is little hope,” said Chandrashekhar Pandey, a home guard from Varanasi. The sense of gloom is so strong that another Varanasi Home Guard, Ajay Pandey said, ”By bringing this decision upon us right before Diwali, the mood in our homes is as if a death has occurred. We will have to resort to begging – and will do this all the way from Varanasi to Lucknow.”Both of them are in their 40’s.
A visually-impaired senior female Home Guard, Chaya Devi has been doing this job since 1989. In the five decades of her life, she has not to face as big a blow like this, from a government she has served for so long. ‘This is really wrong. Imagine, a person who has been working in the same job for so long and has been getting barely 15,000 rupees a month has to now sit at home with no hope of any income. It’s a lot of stress and tension to face.” She ended, her eyes moist, “I haven’t slept in days.”
Mounting medical bills is another problem for those whose family members are battling health issues. Home Guard Ravikanth, whose daughter is being treated in BHU has not been paid his salary for three months. He is already deep in debt because of the medicines that he needs to procure. Now with his one steady source of income gone, he is unsure about how he will continue his daughter’s treatment.
Most of the Home Guards work in bigger cities of the state and travel every day from their villages to reach their place of work. As a visibly emotional 45-year-old Home Guard, Rajesh Kumar Sinha, said, ‘After completing duty at 9 PM, many of us reach home by 12 and our wives have to stay up too. The years of service that we have put in have been erased in just one step because we have not been granted the status of a regular appointee. The Chief Minister will be responsible for the dire consequences that 25,000 of us face.”
The Uttar Pradesh Home Guard Unpaid Officials and Employees Association on Sunday registered their protest against the government in Shahjahanpur on October 20th. They hope that those in power will listen to them and do something to help them find alternative employment. “In case the honorable chief minister cannot find us any alternate employment then rest assured, we will be reaching Lucknow with our families, if not there then we will reach the seat of Guru Gorakhnath, we will go wherever to get our source of income back. We will not back down from our demand,” said Ravikanth Pandey.
The government’s claim of budgetary constraints is being met with some skepticism. “The downturn is already affecting employment. The few people who were employed have been shown the door by the government. So, our demand is that the government reverse this decision and take back those they have removed from their jobs.” said Ateek Ahmad, a representative of the Communist Party of India, from Ayodhya.
As a final appeal, Ravikanth addressed our camera, “Respected Yogi Ji, Respected Chief Minister Sir, please give employment, don’t take it away from us.” The Home Guards will continue to appeal for some reprieve from this injustice, while in Ayodhya, five hundred and fifty diyas burn bright.
At the time that this report goes out, the U.P. government has announced that it will reinstate its services on a temporary basis in view of the oncoming festival season. Their future though still remains unclear.