Dr A V Ramani is a MD in Community Health from the Christian Medical
College, Vellore. She was working for Gram Vikas, a NGO in Mohuda,
Orissa, she now works for UNICEF in Bhubaneswar, Orissa
If anyone wishes to contact Dr Ramani.... please email me... I have her
snail mail address & phone #s.....
Into Despair, One Brick At A Time
by Dr A V Ramani
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 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
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
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
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
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?
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