This January, India awoke to the happy news that no cases of polio were detected in the last calendar year. Since 1994, the Pulse Polio Campaign to annually vaccinate all children below the age of five had been relentlessly pursued all over the country. Although the World Health Organization (WHO) had initially determined the year 2000 for the elimination of polio, this took time, much more than anticipated. Donald McNeil, in the New York Times, described the purging of the last cases 'like trying to squeeze jello to death'. That a polio-free year has finally been achieved in India is an event to be cheerful about; the result of an unprecedented mobilisation of resources, both material and human.
I have a special pride in being a very small part of this enterprise. For a couple of years, starting 1994, I was part of a roving mobile vaccination unit set up at the initiative of Rotary International. Our mandate was to drive out of the city (in my case Raigad and Thane, beyond Navi Mumbai) and immunise children living in the open, as it were, at construction sites and near brick kilns. All the while, we had to ensure that the cold-chain within which the vaccine would remain effective, was never broken.
In the first years, the task to round up children where we found them to administer a couple of drops of the vaccine orally was fraught with obstacles. Mothers would gather up their infants and take off at great speed as they saw us approach. Even when we cornered them, they would make excuses: the drops would make their children blind, or leave them impotent, or just kill them. They would call in the menfolk to rough-shoulder us. Even the foremen at these sites and kilns would shoo us away citing 'kaam mein khoti hota hain'.
Each brick made in the thousands of such kilns that dot the periphery of the great Mumbai nagariya plays its part in fulfilling the shiny dreams of our exploding city. But the conditions in which these building blocks are made are abject to the extreme. They exist, willy-nilly in the quasi-urban wilderness beyond Navi Mumbai, in the boondocks where perhaps no rules apply, either for production or for conditions of living.
The workers at these kilns in the Raigad and Thane districts are made up of families imported from neighbouring states or from local tribal communities. Every member of the family is a potential contributor to the workforce, even the children. A mouth to feed has to pay for itself. The work is relentless, in the blazing sun, with hardly any shelter except that which can be put together in a rudimentary manner. Dwellings are little more than sheets stretched to give fitful shade. There are very few material belongings. Here, one realises how much a group of individuals can remain in thrall of their employers, they had little beyond what was given to them, and they did as they were told. As and when we could convince some of the parents to allow us to administer polio drops to their children, we would give a small packet of biscuits to the child. Many parents confounded us completely, by asking ‘yeh kya hai'? It is not that there was poor education or a general ignorance here; these sorry lives were thrust in a situation where there was a complete lack of any long-term future.
Many kilns in operation just outside Mumbai work with rough and ready techniques for firing bricks that obey no norms of production. Although guidelines for building and operating brick kilns have been framed by the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI), it is unlikely that these kiln owners have even heard of the organisation. Their work habits result in near-toxic levels of air pollution in the vicinity of the kilns which are fired for days on end, emitting the acrid smoke that every worker cannot avoid inhaling. Notwithstanding this, bricks are churned out by the millions.
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