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

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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

Murthy’s mother

was helped to give her son

op­tions

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