Back in 2015, the year of my graduation, I got an on-campus placement offer from a civil construction firm in Pune. I joined the company somewhere around mid-June. I was a part of the site’s Quality Control team, responsible for looking and maintaining the quality standards of the residential projects.
At one of my sites, I was inspecting materials required for waterproofing. It was a 4-BHK flat in-making, and the task for the day was to complete the waterproofing of the terrace. When the site’s contractor was explaining the job to some 4-5 workers, I saw a young boy standing amongst them. In my gut, I had the feeling that he was underage. After the contractor went away and the workers began with the work, I stood there for a few minutes to see how the waterproofing goes on.
While they were working, in their conversations, they were referring to that young boy as ‘Babu’ and were teaching him how this process works. My instinct for his underage became more apparent. Somewhere during the lunchtime, I saw Babu sitting with a middle-aged couple, probably his mother and father. As their lunch got over, I called Babu to come and meet me.
Unlike my habit of starting a conversation with small talk, I directly jumped to my concern and asked him about his age. To that, Babu replied, Í am eighteen years old’. I was sure that he was lying, so I asked him again in a polite way, but the reply was still the same. I was a little annoyed with his sternness (he could have been right though), but I pushed for one more try with a bit of harsh tone this time. I told him that I would ask the contractor about his age proof, and if found guilty, not only he would suffer the fate but his parents too. And the truth came out.
Okay, okay! I am sixteen, he replied. He started begging me not to involve the contractor as his parent’s livelihood depends on this job. I was slightly happy that my instinct was correct, but employing an underage is illegal, so I had to do something about it. But before taking up the issue with the contractor, I decided to listen to Babu’s story first.
He joined his parents as a construction worker a few months ago, before that he used to stay at his home in a village Amgaon in Chhattisgarh. His parents worked at the construction site and sought seasonal employment. He studied in the local school and was average in studies, neither loved it nor hated it. To that, I interrupted and asked, ‘Why didn’t you continue with your studies? Did family pressure push you into this job? To that, he replied, ‘No! It was my choice’. My curiosity drove me to enquire more. So what happened then? I asked.
With a pale face, he answered, ‘It’s because my elder brother died three months ago.’
I choked a little and was out of words for some time, but my curiosity and empathy pushed me to ask, ‘What happened to him? Was he sick?
Babu replied, ‘I don’t know much about the details; however, my parents told me that my brother wrote a death note mentioning that he was having some problems with his studies, something related to coping up with exam pressure.’
I asked, ‘How was your elder brother in studies? Average like you?’ Stupid of me to judge beforehand. Babu, with a sense of pride in his tone, replied, ”No! Not at all! He was outstanding in studies. He was the first person in our family, in our village to go to a college in Raipur. He was performing descent in his college too, but then suddenly, he committed suicide. My parents and I got scared and thought that it was education that got his life. Despite performing good in studies, if one can commit suicide, then what’s the point of this education? So I left my school and village to join my parents here.’
While I listened to him, several thoughts ran in my mind, rise in the suicide rate, flaws in our education system, rural/urban societal pressure, and many others that could have impacted Babu’s brother and pushed him towards this unfortunate step.
I offered my condolences to Babu and asked him to help his parents with the waterproofing work. I also assured him that I would not get him nor his parents removed from the site.
I never told the contractor, nor the company’s officials about this; neither did I make any efforts to help Babu understand the importance of education, nor did I help him financially or otherwise. But, whenever I see any building in construction, be it a house, a school, or a mall, I wonder whether the owners/builders, those capable, are ever interested in the stories of their construction workers. Had they known, maybe there was something they could have done to help some of them, maybe their story of Babu could have had a happy ending, which I didn’t.