Making a difference
After his father abandoned his family, Murthy Murugan had to drop out of school and go to work aged 10, carrying bricks on his head at a construction site to earn money to feed his mother and siblings. But he never gave up his dream of becoming a doctor
How a child labourer never gave up on his dream of becoming a doctor.
Murthy Murugan places his stethoscope on the patient’s chest. Dressed in a pair of jeans and a shirt over which he has donned a doctor’s white coat, he is deep in concentration as he examines him.
The 21-year-old takes the pulse of the elderly man who is suffering from a severe cough before turning to his professor, a senior doctor, who has been observing him all along.
“From the symptoms that he exhibits it is clear he is suffering from severe congestion in the chest,’’ says Murthy confidently. “He may need to be started on a course of antibiotics.’’
The professor checks the patient, makes some notes in a diary and turns to Murthy.
“You’re right, but I want you to do a more detailed examination and report to me,’’ he says. Murthy is pleased that his diagnosis is correct. After all, in two years he will qualify to be a doctor – something he never dreamt could happen when he was a 10-year-old working on a construction site to feed his family.
Living in the impoverished village of Kailayapuram of the Dharmapuri district in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, Murthy’s day would begin at 6am. After a quick bath in the common bathroom that served 20 other shacks, Murthy would gobble down his breakfast – leftover rice from the previous night with some homemade lime pickle. If there was any food remaining, he would pack it into a cheap plastic lunch box for his midday meal.
Then, slipping into a pair of worn rubber slippers, he would walk to a building construction site, more than a kilometre away, where he carried bricks on his head or mixed cement in the searing sun before staggering home exhausted with Rs80 (around Dh5) tightly clenched in his fist – his
wages for the day’s back-breaking work, which he would hand over to his mother Palaniammal to feed him and his siblings, three-year-old brother Bhoopalan and six-year-old sister Brindavanam.
“I had to go out and earn after my father abandoned us,” Murthy says. “My mother and siblings would have had no food if I did not work. We had no one to help us.’’
A shattered dream
Murthy believed – wrongly – that his was a happy family. “My father Kumaran Murugan and mother Palaniammal looked after us well,’’ he says. His parents were construction workers who together earned about Rs200 per day. Their dream was to give their children a good education and Murthy was enrolled in the local government school, which provided free education up to class 10.
Happily for everyone, Murthy was more than a good student. At the top of his class, he appeared to be on course to become a doctor.
Then one day, when he was 10 and in grade five, he returned home from school to learn that his father had deserted the family. “My parents used to have occasional fights but one day, my father just left home,” he says.
Unknown to the children, their parents hadn’t been getting on for some time. Kumaran told his wife that he was going to a far off city in search of better work but she guessed that it was only an excuse for leaving them.
Murthy continued school for another week before his mother told him that unless he too earned some money, they would all go hungry. Although she continued working her wages were not enough to support the family. “I loved school and studies,” says Murthy. “But I knew if I didn’t bring home some money, my young siblings would starve. As the oldest child, the burden of looking after the family was now mine.”
The next day, Murthy left school and became one of the 12.6 million child labourers in India.
Initially, his mother got him a job at the construction site where she worked. But the small boy wasn’t strong enough to carry out the gruelling physical labour, so he became a carpenter’s apprentice instead. He worked there for four months but he quickly realised he was not cut out for the job.
“It was tough work,” he says. “Carrying logs of wood, marking and cutting them into precise shapes was difficult. I would almost always get it wrong and as a result, my pay would be cut. After most 12-hour work days I would return home empty-handed.
“I was very upset and felt I was a failure because I could not help my family in any way. My mother’s wages were barely enough to bring food for all of us and several days we went to bed hungry.”
Realising a job at the construction site was Murthy’s only chance to bring home some extra money, his mother brought him back to the site and begged the supervisor to employ him again. “We would all go to the site together. My sister and brother would play amidst the sand while my mother and I would carry bricks, cement or stones,” he says. It was gruelling work for little pay, but when combined with his mother’s income, the family could at least have two meals a day.
“My hands used to get blistered and cut carrying the heavy bricks and metal rods, but I knew there was no other option,’’ he says.
However, Murthy did not resign himself to becoming another faceless statistic among the millions of child labourers. “I missed going to school. I missed learning new things. I was also afraid I would forget whatever I’d learnt so far so I decided to read whatever I could lay my hands on.”
Murthy would grab any scrap of paper, discarded newspapers, and old magazines to take home to read at night. Most nights he took to hanging out at the local tea shop so he could pick up newspapers and magazines left behind by the customers and read them in the pale light of the street lamp.
“Murthy became such a fixture at the tea shop that some customers would actually hand over the day’s newspaper or a magazine for the boy to read,” says Palanisamy, the tea shop owner. “He would also do some odd jobs and pick up some extra money too.”
He carried on like this for another year, with his dream of an education and becoming a doctor fading fast.
And then the Tamil Nadu government launched a drive against child labour in the state, effectively preventing any child under the age of 14 from working. Twelve-and-a-halfyear old Murthy lost his job.
“It was a tough time,” says Murthy. “We did not know what to do. My mother thought of sending me away to Bangalore, a huge city in the neighbouring state of Karnataka where the chances of being caught working were less so I could earn and send money home. Although I was sad at the prospect of leaving my family and going away to a new strange town, I convinced myself that perhaps I would be able to provide a better life for my family.
“There was no news from my father and I knew I had to do all I could to look after the family.’’
Fortunately, as he was preparing to pack his bags and head to the city, two men – Shiva Kumar and Kuberan – visited the family. Representatives of the government working on the National Child Labour Project (NCLP), they were going from house to house
to check on children below 14 who weren’t attending school.
“When they heard I was forced to drop out, they chided my mother for not approaching the government authorities and seeking their help.
“They said it was not too late and that they would provide my mother with some options, which could help me go back to school,’’ says Murthy.
Change of fortune
Palaniammal was given a grant of Rs10,000 to buy a cow. The cow would provide more than four litres of milk a day and by selling the milk at around Rs30 a litre, the family could make ends meet. “We were not expected to repay it [the grant] as long as I was going to school.”
It was the best gift Murthy could have received. “I was elated. I was so looking forward to going to school and studying. I couldn’t thank them enough.’’
He was given classes to help him catch up with all the lessons he’d missed at a non-formal school run by the National Child Labour Project near his village, one of 24 schools in the district.
The bridge schools also provide vocational training, midday meals and healthcare facilities with one doctor and a team of nurses overlooking a group of 20 schools.
Every student also receives a stipend of Rs150 every month, which is put into a bank account opened in the child’s name and can be withdrawn only by the child themselves when he or she is enrolled into a regular school.
Murthy worked hard and in less than two years, he was re-admitted to his old school, along with his old classmates, in Class 8.
“I couldn’t believemy good fortune. I loved getting back to school, meeting my old friends, interacting with teachers and learning new subjects. My mother was happy because I was studying and we were living on the money made from selling milk. I used to study hard, staying up late into the night.”
The hard work paid off – he sailed through his class 10 exams. But convinced he wouldn’t be able to afford college education, Murthy didn’t bother to go to school to pick up his results. His school authorities however, were pleasantly surprised to find the boy had scored more than 90 per cent and had come first in the entire district. Puzzled that he had not come to claim his marks, they set off for his home to congratulate him in person. They found him at a construction site, carrying bricks on his head. Since he was over 14, he could go to work and Murthy wanted to help his mother.
“I was excited and happy when the officials told me about my results but almost immediately realised that it was pointless because I could not study further because we were too poor,” he recalls.
Nevertheless, when the district authorities held a function in the village to congratulate him he went along. “Everyone was happy, especially my mother. When it was my turn to say a few words, I asked the authorities if they would help me study further,” says Murthy. Again NLCP stepped in and prevailed upon a private college, Sri Vijay Vidyalaya, to waive the tuition and hostel fees for Murthy’s undergraduate studies.
After clearing the exams with excellent marks, Murthy then applied to the Mohan Kumaramangalam Medical College in Salem district, where he was selected on merit. A local doctor, Uma Maheswari, read about his achievements in a local newspaper, and came forward to fund his medical studies.
Today Murthy’s day still begins at 6am. After breakfast at the hostel canteen, he has a packed schedule starting at 8am.
Hospital visits and practical lessons make up the first part of the day, when he meets patients, checks their blood pressure, and learns to give injections.
After lunch his time is devoted to theory classes where the second-year medical student is learning about the intricacies of the human body. Assignments, presentations and submission of project papers keep him busy late into the night. “I still cannot believe that I will become a doctor in two years,’’ he says.
“I have to thank everybody for this – my mother, the NLCP officials, my college teachers.
“My dream? To become the best doctor. I want to specialise in radiology and serve in my village and I am going to ensure I carry forward the help I received by helping as many poor children as I can,’’ he says.
“One day, I’d also like to meet my father – if only to tell him that his son, who was once a construction worker, is now a doctor.”
Murthy says his dream is to become the best doctor
he can be
The family home, where Murthy found out his hard work had paid off
was helped to give her son