Bhubaneswar, July 23: Clad in all-white, they reached the busy Unit 4 market in a blue pick-up truck at 10.20 yesterday morning.
Armed with crowbars, shovels and spades, 40 men jumped off the truck, rolled up their sleeves and donned masks and white gloves. They proceeded to do what the Bhubaneswar Municipal Corporation and local fish traders had failed to do — clean up the mess in the area.
Passers-by and local shopkeepers looked on as the men went about clearing shrubs and the undergrowth near the market amid intermittent rain.
The men, mostly serving life terms for murder at the Bhubaneswar special jail in Jharpada, could have passed off as municipal workers doing their duty but for the odd banner that said the convicts were conducting a cleanliness drive as part of an ongoing jail reforms programme.
The convicts were certainly workers with a difference for they displayed rare enthusiasm in cleaning up the filth that had long been choking the marketplace. There were no policemen guarding the convicts other than jailer Khageswar Mohanty, jail superintendent B.K. Ojha and some other prison officials.
The convicts swung into action once the formalities, which included speeches by jail authorities and urban development minister Sameer Dey, were over.
Sporting a ferocious moustache and beard, Birabara Dhaundiasingha of Khurda’s Haripur village seemed to be enjoying his stint outside the prison walls. Dhaundiasingha has spent the last 10 years serving a life term after being convicted for murder.
Bijan Bihari Jagadeb, a 37-year-old convict from Kusumati village, was brimming with enthusiasm. “We are ready to clean up the market as many times as the jail authorities want us to,” he said. “We want a chance to serve the people,” said Jagadeb, who has had little contact with his family since being jailed 10 years ago.
The Unit 4 market is one of the two busiest marketplaces in the Orissa capital, but has long been a stinking mess of animal waste and rotting vegetables.
With the municipal corporation refusing to clear the mess citing a funds crunch and lack of manpower and traders passing the buck back to it, the market was on the verge of becoming a huge dumpyard. The drains were clogged with chicken feathers, vegetables, plastic carry bags and other waste materials. The small open space near the market was full of human excreta.
Thus, when Abharani Chaudhury of NGO Orissa Patita Uddhar Samity asked inspector-general (Prisons) G.K. Das if he wished to involve the convicts in a clean-up operation, the senior policemen did not take long to say yes. “We wanted to involve inmates who have strayed into the world of crime in social work,” says Das. “It is the first time in the country that such a programme has been undertaken,” he said.
With the municipal corporation staying away, jail authorities provided shovels and crowbars as well as packets of bleaching powder. Traders from the Maa Tarini Khudra Vyavasayee Sangha at Unit 4 came forward to provide help and NGO Yuva Shakti provided lunch packets and cold drinks for the convicts.
After cleaning for many hours, the convicts took off their gloves and masks — the marketplace was looking much cleaner. “We will come again to clear the rest of the garbage. But I hope they (the traders) don’t mess it up,” said Niranjan Routray, a convict from Banpur.
“The inmates have done a great service. We will ensure that the place remains clean,” an obviously happy trader said.
Benga and Padia now have the chance to repay their debt. The inmates had shops in the same market before being sentenced. The Uddhar Samity wants a cycle stand to be built on the open space the inmates have cleared.
The jail reforms programme at the Bhubaneswar jail was started in May last year by the then inspector-general (prisons) B.B. Mohanty. His successor Das now wants the inmates to clean up other filthy spots like the area around the Lingaraj temple and the old town.