This story begins in 2002 with the birth of a boy and the death of his father soon after. He is born into such abject poverty in a Bhubaneswar slum that his mother sells him off to a ragpicker for Rs800: another statistic in India’s shameful record of poverty.
Budhia Singh would have been condemned to anonymity but for one fact: He can run. And how. At the age of three, he’s running more than 40km a day. Budhia is so poor that he runs without shoes, newspapers report. The story touches thousands of readers, who call up newspaper offices with offers of money. Budhia Singh, ‘wonder boy,’ is born.
Then, Budhia is ‘adopted’ by a judo coach, Biranchi Das. He doesn’t go to school but gets milk and eggs, he tells BBC. Das has clearly seen the potential in Budhia, a later-day Jesse Owens, perhaps, and is determined to back him.
The criticism has already begun. India’s star athlete P.T. Usha expresses concern that pushing Budhia beyond a point could have disastrous consequences on his health. The state’s sports minister, Debashis Nayak, declares that the government will not be a mute spectator to his “exploitation”.
But Budhia continues running, blazing his way in 2006 to the Limca Book of Records for running 65km non-stop in seven hours and two minutes. The run is sponsored by CRPF (the Central Reserve Police Force). At the end of it, Budhia is a quivering, shivering wreck. An appalled National Human Rights Commission asks the Orissa government for an explanation.
In Orissa, the state authorities and Das are at war. Das insists that Budhia is fine; the district child welfare committee orders a medical examination that finds Budhia malnourished and under cardiac stress. The department of women and child welfare files a police complaint; Das gets a restraining order from the high court. All the same, the government bans Budhia from running.
So now, Das says, Budhia will walk. In June, he is scheduled to participate in a 10-day ‘walkathon’. But the police intervene and Das and Budhia’s mother—who has now re-emerged in her son’s life—stage a sit-in protest.
Then, the coach and the mother fall out. Last week, Budhia said Das has been beating him and denying him food. As evidence, he has scars that later turn out to be six months old. The mother files an FIR, Das is arrested (and subsequently gets bail) and Budhia swears at an Independence Day function, while eating an icecream, that he will never run again.
Many journalists in Orissa believe that Das is a convenient scapegoat; a man who made powerful enemies. They ask: Where were the ministers and human rights activists when Budhia was being sold off? How many children have been rescued from slums? Weren’t state officials present when Budhia was running to get his place in the record books? Why were they silent then?
These are valid questions. But equally valid: How do you explain Budhia’s scars? Also, even though it was Das who discovered Budhia’s talent, is a judo coach the best person to train this prodigy? And who decides whether Budhia should run at all? And finally, why is our collective conscience awakened by the story of this particular boy? Every day, I drive by little children performing acrobatic tricks as they beg for alms in the heart of New Delhi. At traffic signals, glossy magazines are hawked by equally young children, proudly wearing T-shirts emblazoned with the titles they sell. Do we protest? Do ministers and legislators step forward and threaten the adults who look after them with jail? Does the National Human Rights Commission ask uncomfortable questions to the Delhi government?
In 2005, K. Chandrasekhar Rao, the then minister of labour and employment, told Parliament that there were 1.25 crore ‘working children’ according to the 2001 census, an increase of 10.68% since 1991. Amazingly, child labour per se is not banned; the Child Labour (Prohibition & Regulation) Act, 1986—notified in October last year—only regulates working conditions and bans the employment of children in hazardous industries and in dhabas and as domestic workers. But you’d have to be blind not to notice evidence to the contrary staring you in the face.
How many unknown Budhias do we pass by as we go about our daily work? And what, finally, will happen to Budhia? Will he remain in the slum where he was born? Or will he rise to become India’s star athlete hope, running quite literally from the circle of poverty into which he was born?
Namita Bhandare will write every other Tuesday on social trends. Send your feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org