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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 happened.

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 right there.

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 kiln.

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.

EARLIER FEATURES: Should I Have Left Her There?
The Light of A Lantern
A death in the dispensary
This One Child

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