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Sanitation Workers Flex Sporting Muscles, Win Medals

Kukuram and Mukesh Kumar, both sanitation workers, beat daunting odds to strike gold and silver at the international bodybuilding championship in Thailand

Kukuram, 53, a former bonded labourer-turned-sanitation worker
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In his story, The Elephant And The Rope, A.M. Marcus tells of the elephants who could break free from their bonds anytime, but they would not because they believed they could not. A slender rope took away their confidence in themselves over time. As a result, they were stuck right where they were. The story presents a question from the main character about why an elephant in a camp does not escape even without extra security, such as a cage or chains.

This is also the story of most people continuing to live in challenging situations. For instance, the Dalits, like the elephants, have gone through a tough life full of adversities, yet hang on to a belief that they cannot do something because of conditioning over time.

But then, some exceptions shine as beacons of hope. For example, Kukaram, 53, and Mukesh Kumar, 45, from Punjab’s Patiala district are inspiring examples of people who chase their dreams successfully.

The success of both sanitation workers-cum-bodybuilders was facilitated by the Harpic World Toilet College team in Patiala. The faculty made these men believe in themselves and realise that their dreams were within reach.

Like other Dalit youngsters of his time, Kukaram dropped out of school. But would poverty and a lack of awareness mean he had to let go of his dreams? For Kukaram, a former bonded labourer, the answer was an emphatic no. Since he was a young boy, Kukaram has been passionate about bodybuilding and physical fitness. In 1985, Kukuram started working on his body.

He had dropped out of school to be a dairy farmer’s bonded labourer in Patiala to repay a debt of Rs 3,000, and later, he pulled a rickshaw for survival. He joined an akhara (a local wrestling league) but had to drop out because he could not afford to pay his fee there. The local bodies kept him as a safai karamchari (cleaner) for over 15 years before firing him because they feared his rising reputation would pose questions.

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Mukesh Kumar, 45, a sanitation worker-cum-bodybuilder. They won gold and silver respectively at the 39th Natural Bodybuilding Union International Championship in Thailand Photo: Tribhuwan Tiwari

He moved about cleaning homes and saving for the big dream. Bodybuilding, he realised, was an expensive passion. For one, the food he needed was expensive. Besides, he also had to pay for using the gym.

In 1989, he began participating in bodybuilding championships and competitions at the district and state levels. He was winning matches in Punjab and gaining a reputation as a bodybuilder. That gave him confidence and reputation, and with a toilet cleaner’s job at the court complex in Rajpura, Kukuram knew there was no looking back.

Kukuram borrowed money from friends and relatives to follow a proper diet for bodybuilding and began preparing for an international bodybuilding championship in Thailand. But there was nobody to sponsor his travel and participation. Kukaram’s wife gathered and sold whatever jewellery she had bought from saving her husband’s meagre earnings to buy him a flight ticket.

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The 39th Natural Bodybuilding Union International Championship held at the Thai resort city of Pattaya on December 17 and 18, 2022, provided Kukuram with the opportunity. He returned home a winner, with a gold medal that justified everyone’s faith in him—and his faith in himself.

kukaram dropped out of school to be a bonded labourer in Patiala to repay a debt of Rs 3,000, and later, he pulled a rickshaw for survival

Kukuram also turned into a role model for many other Dalits. One such follower is Mukesh Kumar, a resident of Rajpura block in Patiala. Like Kukuram, Kumar did not go to school as a child because of poverty. Kumar, a father of two, lives with his family in Patiala’s Rajpura block.

When Kumar approached Kukuram, the latter was more than willing to guide a fellow Dalit to pursue his dream of becoming a bodybuilder.

In 2002, Kumar started participating in the bodybuilding championship competition at the district and state levels of Punjab. He is also the winner of the many bodybuilding competitions and championships.

Kumar borrowed money to meet the expenses to participate in a world championship in Thailand along with Kukuram. He had to follow a proper diet plan, which also needed money.

His perseverance paid off and he won a silver medal at Thailand’s world bodybuilding championships.  But lack of any further support and finances proved to be a damper.

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Kukaram with his wife, who sold her jewellery to buy him a flight ticket to bodybuilding championship in Thailand Photo: Tribhuwan Tiwari
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He did not get any job offers from the government, which put immense financial strain on his family. Today, Kumar is back to doing what others in his family do: cleaning toilets and sewers in the Rajpura court complex along with Kukaram.

Kumar says: “I quit my studies after failing to pay the fee for my final exams. Bodybuilding was a childhood passion, but it took me 18 years to resume it after I met Kukaram. We get more debt than practice time.”

Everyone in the small town recognises these two men. But there has been no helping hand.

Kukuram and Mukesh Kumar have received Harpic WTC Training and understand the importance of health safety at the workplace and the need to maintain sanitation and personal hygiene for better health, which is central to their bodybuilding dreams.

Everyone in the small town recognises kukaram and mukesh kumar. But there has been no helping hand

The two men also reflect in the words of the World Toilet Organization founder, Jack Sim, who says, “Sanitation workers are the unsung heroes of our society.”

The two bodybuilders are holding their heads high and also inspiring others. The opportunities for upward mobility and an awareness of the injustice of being manual scavengers in the 21st century have turned some Harpic World Toilet College alumni into advocates against the caste system. Among them are Vinubhai Gangadiya, who worked for daily wages in his village in Gujarat for 23 years, being the butt of casteist jokes.

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Ironically, Gangadiya could not make sense of the how and why of it. “I was quite ignorant about the dynamics of caste and religion and that casteism was what was playing out in my life,” he confesses. “I had no political knowledge, no concept of human rights, no understanding of organisation.”

He adds, “At work, my family and I would be given segregated cups for our tea, and for meals, we had to carry our utensils to eat in while others would be provided with everything they needed.” He says further, “Because of the way we were treated and spoken to, I was afraid to go to the panchayat, afraid of the police, scared to raise my voice. I even considered killing myself.”

At Navsarjan, a partner of Harpic WTC in Gujarat, Gangadiya heard about the idea of casteism for the first time and realised he was a victim of it. “I got over my fear of talking to people, and today, I am imparting training to others,” he smiles. “I get to see different places, and I get to learn while meeting new people.” Gangadiya has come a long way, personally, but says he is saddened to see his people continue to face discrimination. “Even educated people believe in a caste-based system,” he rues. “But we will get over this. The fight is on!”

Gangadiya’s akhara, or wrestling place, is different. It is a fight between minds, not bodies. But to have come all this far, he is no different from Kukuram and Kumar—these men fight for a place under the sun. There are hundreds of others following in their footsteps.

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(The author is a senior journalist)

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