Jawaharlal Nehru University, which has topped the latest Indian Institutional Ranking Framework (IIRF), is known for its leading faculties and research in social and applied sciences.
But it isn’t just the students and teachers that keep the University, established in 1969, going.
There are silent contributors too like the 35-year-old Jitendra Singh, whose absence would cause great difficulty to staff and students alike.
Outside the University’s main library, amid dense trees and rush of students going to their departments and hostels, Jitendra is lodged in a small shop. He is almost always busy sharpening a key with a small hammer and other equipment for his online and walk-in customers.
“I’ve been working here, making keys for over one-and-half decades. This is our third generation in JNU. Before me, my father Karan Singh did the same work for over a decade. Grandfather Phool Singh did the same for over a decade. They used to go around on bicycle as hawkers but I have managed to set up this shop,” says Jitendra, known as chaabiwala to Patriot.
“This tiny shop (dhaba) was allotted to me by the JNU administration 16 years ago. We demanded it because there was demand for my services among the students. Now that I have been here, no one faces problems.”
Away from home
Hailing from Sonipat district in Haryana, Jitendra lives in RK Puram (sector-6) on rent with his father and brother.
Working in Delhi means that he has to be away from his wife and kids and it is only on the weekends that he is able to catch up with them.
His wife lives with their four daughters in his ancestors’ village, where Jitendra goes every Friday evening and returns on Monday.
On the five working days of the week — Monday to Friday – he keeps his shop open from 8 am to 8 pm.
“My father had taught me this work. He continues to do this in Munirka (near JNU) and has handed over this shop to me since only a single person is allowed on the University campus.”
Jitendra doesn’t want his children to pursue this line of employment.
“This is the last generation [working in this]. I will not bring my children to this work here but want to educate them,” he reveals. However, he has himself never faced any issue with the students.
“The behaviour of students is very good here and the environment of the University is better than what I’d face if I were to work outside. I have not experienced any clash or argument with students regarding my work or payment over the last 17 years on the campus,” he adds.
“Students and teaching staff here are refined people and respect me and my work. I feel peace here in my work. I charge less than what those making keys outside charge because the customers are mostly students.”
As an example, he quotes the difference in prices. For a key that costs Rs 50 outside, he charges only Rs 30 at the most in JNU.
Digitisation has also made his job easy. If anyone asks him for a key now, he just has to ask for the picture of the key on WhatsApp. He checks the size and bargains on the phone.
“I have uploaded my number on Justdial. They asked me for a name, and I filled it as ‘JNU key maker’. The students can easily search for me. They just have to enter the registered name on Justdial and can easily find me and call. This is now my identity. Students call me here with different names – Chaabi Waale Bhaiya, Sardar Ji while some call me sir too. I take orders till as far as 15 kilometres. If anyone calls me at his place, I go and make their key. Digitisation has made things easy. People also pay on digital apps, so it helps me in my work,” he explains.
Jitendra is adept at making all types of keys but the work is fraught with risk as misplaced keys can often lead to thefts. He has to cross-check with the security guards.
“There are more than 20 hostels and I attend to all of them. I make all types of keys – for rooms, two-wheelers, lockers and bicycles. I have to tread carefully. If I go to any hostel to make a key, then first I make an entry on the gate and ask the guard if the room belongs to the person concerned. I do it only if the room is of that person. There hasn’t been a single blame on me here.”
Students and staff also feel comfortable, as he is trustworthy and gets the job done quickly. He has become so popular that the students missed him during lockdown.
“My shop was shut for two years during lockdown. I faced financial problems at that time and returned to my village. The staff and students also faced problems. They called me and asked me about my whereabouts as they wanted keys,” he said.
The administration supported him too during lockdown, waiving off the fees.
“The administration gave me an identity card like that of a student and charges Rs 1180 annually for it. The charge was Rs 500 earlier. The id card is meant for entry, and both my father and grandfather had one. However, the administration did not charge me the annual fee during the lockdown period,” he says.
A personal assistant of JNU library, who has been working since 1984, said, “He is as much part of JNU as we are. I also know his father. Sometimes, very important work can get stuck without a key or if the key is missing, and only he can resolve it. So, in a way, he is also contributing to the university.”
A female student, who came to get a key of her hostel room made, said, “This is good for us. My friend told me about him. We don’t need to go outside.”
JNU has faced some controversies over the last few years. Its effect has also been felt by the key-maker.
“People said how and why you are working in JNU. They said the university is involved in objectionable activities. Personally, however, I have not experienced any trouble here. I have always found a very good environment.” said Jitendra.