A Sweeping initiative

His initiative is not just an employment opportunity, it is social cause. Owais Shafi Bhat is responsible for the maintenance of hygiene at 10 hospitals in valley besides two other institutions. Haroon Mirani tells the story.

When Owais Shafi Bhat, 27, told his parents that he was going to take up the work of cleaning hospitals, they were shell shocked.

Horrified by the idea of their educated son taking up sanitation work usually reserved for downtrodden, hs father, Mohammed Shafi Bhat, resisted. The more they pressed him to forego the “horrible idea with possible adverse social reactions”, the more his resolve solidified.

Three years down the line, Owais is content with happy parents on his side and a growing private sanitation firm at his back. He is the owner of Owais Enterprises, valley’s first private sanitation company that manages the cleaning operations at 12 hospitals, National Institute of Engineering and the Board of School Education.

The idea of introducing private cleaning operations in the valley hospitals struck Owais while visiting a hospital in Delhi. “I was bowled over by the cleanliness in the hospital and the way those private operators handled it,” recalls Owais, a resident of Danawari in Hawal area of Srinagar. “It was at that time that I decided do implement the idea in Kashmir, as the condition of our hospitals was pathetic.”

Resistance from parents was not the only challenge Owais had to face. “When I started my first assignment in Lala Ded hospital, it was a nightmare for me and my workers,” says Owais. “The government sweepers and others used to steal our equipment, defile the clean surfaces and create hurdles in our work. We had to fight really hard,” says Owais.

But consistent efforts soon started to change things and work became a normal affair. “The officers were extremely happy with our work. Within a few weeks the hygiene inside LD hospital had begun to improve,” say Owais with a beam of pride on his face.

“During his recent visit to LD hospital, the chief minister was all praise for the cleanliness but was very angry with the situation outside the hospital, which is not our domain,” Owais is quick to add. Satisfied with his work Owais hopes to extend it further.

Currently, his company employs around 100 people. Besides managing sanitaion work in LD and other hospitals in Srinagar, the company is also entrusted with the job of cleaning hospitals in Pulwama, Budgam and Sopore.  “Everyone is satisfied with our job and this is helping us to get new customers” says Owais. He is also in negotiations with Airport Authority of India for a contract to clean the Srinagar International Airport. Owais is proud to have introduced private sanitation in Kashmir. After Owais Enterprises, one more firm has come up and several others are also in the fray which Owais believes will set a healthy trend.

He lists many benefits of private sanitation. He says that privatisation makes the work cost effective. “Rather than getting full time sweepers on higher salaries, one can get the job done by private enterprises at a far less price,” says Owais. The private sanitation, he says, is a 24-hour-job unlike government sweepers who work only for daytime.
Principal Government Medical College and Superintendent Lal Ded Hospital Dr Shahida Mir agrees that private sanitation has benefitted the hospital.

“Earlier we used to have permanent employees as sweepers and other cadres for this work on good salaries. Salaried employees meant less accountability and the result was total messed up environs in the hospital,” says Dr Shahida. “But now thanks to the private sanitation there is round the clock quality work at lesser costs.” She says that the multi-tier accountability in this system ensures good quality. Then it also means lessened burden for her office too.

“We don’t have to care for workers retiring, their demands for perks, their migration, leaves, absenteeism and so on, which usually affected our work,” she said.   Owais says that private sector has a bright future, not just in sanitation but also in other sectors because of its thrust on quality work.

He feels government should do more to encourage private enterprises. His only problem with government dealings has been delayed payments, which hamper his work.  “Currently we do not get payments quickly from government departments, sometimes it is delayed for years and we have to take loans to pay the salaries to our staff,” says Owais.
He is, however, all praise for former superintendent of LD hospital Dr Nissar, who encouraged him to take the job when everyone else thought it to be a failure. “He even helped me to draft my first proposal,” says Owais. The enterprise uses manual as well as mechanised methods like vacuum cleaning and scrubbing.

Unlike many of his friends Owais didn’t blindly pursue a government job. He says that a government job would have only hampered his take off to success.    “Dreaming is good and one must work towards achieving that,” Owais says in his appeal to youth in Kashmir.

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