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Hands that held books and pens, now dig wells to support family

While Sandeep wants to study further, the most immediate concern for him is supporting his poor family through financial hardship aggravated by the ongoing pandemic.

Written by Divya Goyal | Ludhiana | August 6, 2020 1:20:43 pm
Covid kills education dreams in rural punjab Sandeep Kumar in a wastewater disposal well that he has dug in Samrala town of Ludhiana. Express

Sandeep Kumar (18), from village Manki of Samrala in Ludhiana, is unsure if he will be able to pursue his studies after recently clearing his Class 12 exams from Government Senior Secondary School, Manki. While he wants to study further, the most immediate concern for him is supporting his poor family through financial hardship aggravated by the ongoing pandemic.

So, Sandeep now utilises his time digging wells for a paltry Rs 300-350 per day.

Not just Sandeep but his younger brother, Mandeep, who has now entered Class 12, also does labour work every few days, to support their father, Munna Lal, who too is a labourer.

The two brothers are among several youths in rural Punjab who have been forced to take up ‘khuiyyan pattna’ (digging wells) to support their struggling families during the pandemic.

Speaking to The Indian Express, Sandeep Kumar said that his work begins at 8 am and ends at 6 pm and for 10 hours (excluding one hour for lunch), he just digs soil with a spade.

“I have cleared my Class 12 this year in humanities stream. I want to my pursue studies — if not graduation then at least a computer course, but my father cannot afford my education ahead. Coronavirus and lockdown have made things worse and since lockdown started, I have dug four wastewater disposal wells at different locations in Samrala to support my family. It is a contractual work, not a job but it pays me Rs 300-350 a day. It takes two days to dig 20-30 feet deep well and another day to cement it. A team of three can complete a well in three days and whenever a team member is required, I also take my friends along who need work,” said Sandeep.

His two younger brothers Mandeep, a Class 12 student, and Amandeep, a Class 11 student, also do occasional labour jobs to support the family.

“My younger brothers now attend online classes. We recently purchased a second hand smartphone for Rs 4,500 with family savings and a small loan…Who wants to leave studies and work as a labourer, digging wells but we have no other option. Earlier too it was getting difficult for us to even pay fee of Rs 85 a month for Class 12 but our teacher helped us a lot. He would pay our fee whenever we would fail to arrange it in time. But since the lockdown started, things only got worse as our father failed to get daily job or labour work. Now since unlocking has started, some people have started constructing homes in village and he is getting little bit of work. Our mother also used to go to homes and work as domestic help for Rs 500 or so. But I am the eldest of the three siblings and have to leave studies after Class 12 so that my younger brothers can complete their Class 12,” said Sandeep, adding that he worked in paddy fields, helped at home construction sites during the lockdown to support his family.

He added that while he had been doing odd labour jobs since Class 9, earlier it was only on Saturdays or Sundays, but now he has to work regularly to help the family.

Mandeep Singh (17), also from village Manki, accompanies Sandeep for digging wells to support his family.

“Initially, I was working as labourer during maize harvesting season. I have also worked as a labourer with tent/catering owners and then also went for labour works at construction sites. Then I started accompanying Sandeep for digging wells as it pays Rs 300-350 a day. My father is a labourer and my younger sister is also studying. So, he needs my help for earning. I try to attend online classes as we recently got a smartphone but only when I am free from work… My father took a loan so that we could purchase a smartphone for Rs 7,000,” said Mandeep. “

Daljit Singh, vice-principal, Government Senior Secondary School, Manki, said that these students joined online classes groups on WhatsApp recently only as earlier they did not have smartphones and even now, they complete work only when they get time from work due to family compulsions.

“I was surprised when I found these students missing from online classes and later when we tried to locate where they were, we got to know that they were engaged in jobs such as digging wastewater wells. For such a meager amount, they dig soil for entire day under the sun and then try to complete the online classes work. If they will not work, there won’t be food in their homes so we can’t force them to leave work and study. We try to support them as much as possible because in most cases, it is with great difficulty that they have even arranged a smartphone. Coronavirus and lockdown have pushed them into extreme poverty,” he said.

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