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Killer kilns


PUJA AWASTHI | Issue Dated: May 20, 2012, New Delhi
Tags : brick fields of India | debt-ridden workers in India | |


In the brick fields of India, debt-ridden workers and their families are exploited with impunity by economically and politically powerful owners, writes Puja Awasthi
Shivlochan Kumar (30) returned home as a crushed skull, a distorted face, smashed ribs, lacerated lungs, broken bones and a still heart. So much in return for the single act of overstaying at his home in the village of Palay (Kaudhihar block, Allahabad) to help with the harvest.
Kumar worked as a moulder in the New Baba brick field owned by Mohammed Faizan and Jamal-ud-din. On April 4, a few days after he had returned home on leave to help his family of farm labourers reap the standing wheat crop; his bosses came looking for him. “They wanted him to return immediately. He wanted to stay till the evening to buy provisions for the kitchen. They dragged him away,” remembers his 45-year-old mother-in-law Phoolwati. In the half an hour that it took for Phoolwati to gather some men from the village and rush to the kiln, Shivlochan was beaten and then thrown on the Lucknow-Allahabad highway. And then, a vehicle ran him over. “It was all over by the time we reached,” says Phoolwati.
Kumar is just one statistic in the horror of India’s brick kiln industry – the second largest in the world which produces 140 billion bricks annually. The Indo-Gangetic plain accounts for 65 per cent of the production and Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and West Bengal are the major brick-producing states.
This is a labour intensive, seasonal industry which depends on migratory, mostly low caste, landless workers who in the farming season work on other’s fields. Locals are not employed for fear of unionism. Even Shivlochan had migrated to the neighbouring block to find work.
Besides braving the hardships of the unorganised sector (long work hours, lack of basic facilities, wage discrimination, no healthcare, child labour), workers in the brick kiln industry operate under a sly system of bonded labour. Because work is hard and the wages low, kiln owners lure workers with handsome advances – often as big as Rs 50,000 – offered through contractors. To repay the advance, a worker comes with his entire family so that the advance (mostly taken for a family emergency) can be paid back at the end of the six/seven month production season. Since most workers are illiterate, they accept whatever calculations are offered by the kiln owners on the interest paid and the principal remaining.
In Shivlochan’s case, the advance was Rs 25,000 and he had set up temporary home at the kiln with his seven month pregnant wife Sangeeta and two children aged three and six. The two worked 15 hours a day and earned Rs 300 for every lot of 1,000 bricks they produced under a harsh sun.
Pankaj Kumar, the owner of the Meera Brick Field in Kaushambi, sees nothing wrong in this system. “Workers are a notorious lot. They take advances and run away. Every year we lose a couple of lakhs. Why should we spare them?” 
Why indeed, when this industry has seen none of the benefits of a 2008 Act that promises health, life and disability insurance, old-age pension and the group accident scheme to 94 per cent of the country’s workforce which toils in the unorganised sector. 
Even if the Act is enforced it brings too little. As it did for Pramod Kumar – a fireman who, eight years ago, fell into the furnace of a brick kiln near Haridwar (Uttarakhand). All he has since received in compensation is a monthly pension of Rs 300, paid every six months as a lump sum of Rs 1,800 and arriving typically two months after it is due. Pramod was in the furnace for five minutes before co-workers pulled him out with a fork. He emerged with 80 per cent burns, complete loss of vision in one eye and missing four fingers of his left palm. 
Pramod never named the brick kiln owner who offered just the courtesy of having him dropped off at a hospital in Delhi after the accident. The owner could never be held accountable for not following the basic safety measure of fitting the mouth of the furnace with a lattice so that the workers would not fall in. Also, the kiln was probably not registered under the Factory Act or the Inter State Migration Act, like most other kilns and operated in connivance with officials of the labour department and the local police.
The unwillingness of workers to speak against their employers scuttles efforts to enforce improved safety and wage standards in the industry. Hari Ram, who is part of a network working with brick kiln workers in Allahabad, Pratapgarh, Kaushambi and Fatehpur under Buniyad – a project supported by the British charity Find Your Feet and the UK Department for International Development, says, “Brick kiln owners are economically and politically powerful. Their networks control most local systems of production and thus workers adhere to an unwritten code of silence.”
Silence and, as it happened in the case of 21-year-old Lalli Patel, desperation. Three years ago, Patel’s father Moreti (45) died at the Sahu Brick Field where he had worked for two years. The senior Patel was digging clay when he collapsed. “There was blood from his nose and mouth. The kiln owner had his body thrown at our doorstep”, remembers Lalli. No compensation was offered to the family. “They gave us five kgs of ghee (clarified butter) which they said could be used for the last rites. 
The owner did not bother visiting us. He did not pay my father’s remaining wages either,” says Lalli, who had to drop out of school to support the family. Also, the family had to take a loan of Rs 6,000 to meet the expenses for the cremation.
But Lalli’s real troubles began when he attempted to find work nearby. Since word has gotten around that the kiln owner, a local politician, wanted the young man to come and work for him; no one was willing to employ Lalli. And so, Lalli was forced to work at the same kiln where his father had bled to death. “I live under shame. Every day is like a punishment,” he shrugs.
Rajendra Sahu, the offending brick kiln owner, however likes to believe that he is a model employer. As a member of the Kaushambi brick kiln owners association, – a representative body of 150 brick kilns – he has been instrumental in formulating a set of guidelines which will serve as the basis of contracts between owners and workers. These guidelines include details on advance, number of days of work and wages but nothing by way of benefits for workers. Yet, Sahu declares, “We are socially conscious and strongly discourage practices such as child labour”.
On Sahu’s own field, two brothers Akhilesh (16) and Abhishek Saroj (13), have dropped out of school to add to the number of bricks their parents produce. The elder would rather prefer working at a restaurant in Mumbai (which he did for five months) but has been compelled to be at the kiln so that he can keep an eye on his father who suffers from epilepsy and often suffers fits while working.
With inputs from Yogesh Bhawra (Jaipur) and Mushahid Khan (Delhi)
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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017