The Rediff Special/A V Ramani
Into Despair, One Brick At A Time
Padman looked over his father's shoulder to smile and clap his chubby hands at me. We watched them go with some sadness, as both of us had grown fond of the child over the five months we had looked after him. This was how it
Nakul, from Bolangir district in Orissa, made a living collecting tendu
leaves from people who gathered them from the forest. He and his wife,
Luchana, sorted, counted and tied the leaves in bundles. The contractor
advanced them Rs 1,000 against their wages, which were then reduced to Rs 40
every fortnight, along with a kg of oil, two of dal and about 20 kg of
rice. This contracted them to him for six months after which they would
have to look for other work, a yearly search that took them over most of
north Orissa and even south Bihar. During these wanderings two of their
older chldren died of diarrhoea and pneumonia, so now they had their
firstborn Lakhi (12), Chudamani (10), Pankaj (3) and Padman, the baby.
Nakul developed tuberculosis of the lung and the spine and could not walk.
He spent two weeks in the hospital in Bolangir and was strapped in a
plaster jacket. After this he was forced to move to search for work and
could not go back for his medicines each month. But the family could not
migrate very far because of his illness. Life was becoming increasingly
hard. So when a contractor from Behrampur, about 150 miles away, offered
them work in a brick kiln, where Nakul would not have to walk long
distances, they accepted readily. He advanced them Rs 1,200, promising wages
at the rate of Rs 50 per 1,000 bricks and ten kg of rice each week.
That was how Nakul came to be working next to Gram Vikas in Mohuda, where
my husband and I were community health doctors. Mohuda is just outside
Behrampur. The kiln was near our campus and Nakul as well as the other
workers built themselves shelters of unbaked bricks and palm leaf thatch
Brick-making is done in pairs: one worker presses the mud in the moulds,
the other empties them out to dry. Nakul's first attempts at brick-making
were not very good. He and Luchana lacked experience but did manage to make
about 4,000 bricks a week which should have earned them Rs 200. They were
paid only Rs 40, the balance kept as repayment on the advance.
With a family of six to feed, Rs 40 and 10 kg of rice does not stretch far.
Nakul was often forced to take a loan mid-week. Once the loan was refused
and the family went hungry. Little Padman cried with hunger, ate some of
the mud plentifully available around their hut and had a severe attack of
diarrhoea. He was badly dehydrated when they brought him to our dispensary
at Gram Vikas; there were also symptoms of tuberculosis and pneumonia. We
had to keep him in the dispensary and feed him through a tube. As one
parent had to be with him all the time, they could not work. Their fellow
workers were already in husband-wife teams, no adult was free to work with
Padman's parents. That week Nakul was not paid at all; he got only half his
ration of rice.
Over the days Padman was with us, we got talking to Nakul and Luchana. They
spoke Sambalpuri and we spoke broken Oriya, but we managed to communicate
and learned their story.
Three days later, the owner came to tell Nakul that if they kept away from
work any longer, he would dismiss them. We pleaded that the child really
needed to be there a few days longer and he gave in with bad grace.
At times we feared the emaciated little boy would not survive. But
gradually he recovered and the family went back to the site with him. Nakul
would bring him to us early every morning for his anti-TB drugs and for the
high-calorie infant food we were giving him.
Padman was terribly irritable at first, needing a great deal of coaxing to
drink his milk and take his medicines. As the days went by, the drugs began
to take effect and his health improved. There was a wonderful change. His
arms rounded, his skin took on a sheen of health, he put on weight, began
walking and then running. From a skinny, whining baby he became a
cheerfully jolly child, playing hide and seek with us. It delighted us, and
Nakul's pride and joy were only too apparent. He had never seen Padman
laugh or play.
But all was not well at the kiln. Ever since the family went home and had
been given less rice -- as they had not worked for the entire week -- they
were semi-starved. Nakul, already frail, was now further weakened with
hunger and could hardly find the energy to dig and mix the mud. They made
fewer than their usual 4,000 bricks, so they were paid less, which meant
that they ate less and had less energy to work, so they made still fewer
bricks. And so on.
To help them out of this cycle, we bought them five kg of rice. That
unwittingly precipitated a crisis. The other families at the work site
resented this, resented their familiarity with us. And why should they keep
visiting us when Padman was looking well now? Nakul and Luchana would be
beaten, they threatened, if they continued to visit Gram Vikas.
From that day it was Lakhi who brought Padman to our house every morning,
waiting shyly till he had taken his medicine and romped around before
hoisting him on her slender hip and hastening home. It was a lesson for us,
though I can't even pretend I understood the tensions and emotions at the
Two months later Nakul came to tell us that the kiln was closing for the
year and they were being sent home. We gave him enough medicines to
complete Padman's treatment over the next six months and urged him to find
work nearer his hometown, where he would have the support of relatives. But
Nakul said, now that he was experienced, he would be back next year.
I wonder if we will see the family again. Where will their search for work
take them between now and next summer? If Nakul returns, will it be with
his family intact, or will someone else have succumbed to hunger and
disease? We had helped Padman over a bad patch and built up his resistance,
but for how long? What of his future and that of his siblings? Can they
dream of going to school, learning a trade, getting employment? Or will
they grow up to be migratory, landless labour like their parents?
Does our country offer them any hope?
A V Ramani is a MD in Community Health from the Christian Medical College,
Vellore. She spent 4 years working for Gram Vikas, a NGO in Mohuda, Orissa.
Should I Have Left Her There?
The Light of A Lantern
A death in the dispensary
This One Child
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