Burnt hopes at brick kilns : The story of the migrant workers of Chiada

As part of a project in the course Socio-Cultural Environment of Business, Chandrasekaran K (PGP 1) and his Group mates had visited the village of Chiada, Bavla Taluka, Gujarat, to study the problems faced by brick-kiln workers in the region.

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Around 40kms from the heart of Ahmedabad, Gujarat’s industrial hub lies Chiada. Falling under Bavla taluka Chiada is home to a horde of migrants, originating from the states of Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chattisgarh while a few have left homes in villages within Gujarat in search of better pastures.

Among the numerous lucrative offers that attract the migrant populace, Inth Bhattas (brick kilns) are a major reason. With more than 350 brick kilns spread in and around Ahmedabad, the industry flourishes quietly, away from the watchful eyes of the State.  It is estimated that at any point of time, there are close to 1,00,000 workers employed in these brick kilns, most of them inter-state migrants. Mahender is one such worker who, like every other worker here, moved to Chiada with his entire family, leaving behind their property. Most of these workers, Mahender says, own agricultural land which they have left unattended since they moved to Chiada.

The brick kiln industry falls under the unorganized sector. The owners typically are individuals or a group of individuals who put in money for this business. Starting up a brick kiln requires moderate capital, most of which is used in procuring a chimney and a license from the State. Land is taken on lease for a period of 3-5 years during which the sand in the land is expected to be used up. Beyond this, sand is bought from nearby areas to continue production.

“Yeh chimney jo hai, illegal hai”, proudly announces the owner of the kiln visited, pointing to the mobile chimneys that the workers were shifting into position, before the baking process could begin. The State does not award licenses to kilns with movable chimneys because of the health hazard posed by them. These chimneys are very low in height and thus the poisonous gases that are released into the atmosphere find their way to ground level. Widespread corruption enables such chimneys to prevail in these kilns.

Following land acquisition, the next task of an owner is to find cheap labour for the brick baking season. A season kicks off in October every year and lasts till May the next year. A standard 80 acre Bhatta employs close to 500 workers including spouses and children. The jobs at a kiln can be classified into five: Paatla (moulding), Bharai (transporting bricks for baking), Khadkan (arranging the bricks for baking), Jalaiya (baking the bricks) and Nikasi ( Unloading the bricks from chimney). These seemingly simple tasks require enormous amounts of skills in order to match the expected production rate of close to 1.5crore bricks a season. Skilled labour is spread out across the north of the country. The Paatla specialists come primarily from Sajjanpur in UP, the Bharai and Khadkan experts from Rajasthan, the Jalaiya workers from Etah and Pratapgarh areas in UP and the Nikasis from among the Marwari labourers in Nagpur.

This industry sees an extensive labour supply chain that has spread over the years deep into the aforementioned source regions in the north. The labour chain is a very interesting phenomenon. The owners over the years developed contacts in the labour source regions and these contacts have now grown to be contractors for migrant labour. These contractors spread word about these ‘lucrative’ offers in their family and the village and encourage people to move to the kilns. Each contractor (thekedaar) is responsible for labour supply to 4 kilns on an average. These contractors themselves double up as workers in other kilns to earn the extra wage.

The workers abandon their land and travel all the way to the kilns with children. They are paid an advance amount that varies between 30,000 to 1lakh before migrating and this amount is deducted from every wage installment that the workers receive at the destinations. After deductions, the Rs500 for 1000 brick wage transforms into mere Rs180. Being migrants, the workers are not registered at the district offices, rendering it almost impossible for the State machinery to reach out to them.

At first glance, it is surprising as to why there is migration in the first place. The kilns in UP employ migrants from Gujarat for their labour requirements. There are many reasons for this phenomenon, the major ones being that migrant labourers are easier to exploit. The unspoken contract has a clause that empowers the employer to pay the worker at half the wage rate if he decides to quit mid-way through the season. This clause transforms the labourer into a sort of bonded labourer. As explained further on in the report, the workers land themselves in deep trouble in the kilns in the hopes of eliminating their debt. In fact, the kiln work in a way ensures that the workers remain perennially in debt.

A striking feature that is displayed in these communities can be seen in the inter caste relations. “Gaon mein hum aur Jalaiya log ek hi kuan mein naha nahi sakte. Jalaiya nahaya toh 1500 ka zurmaana lagta hai.”, says Mahender. But here, he has no option but to draw water from the same drum to take bath.

The families of the workers are subject to huge amount of agony at the hands of their employers. There have been numerous cases of physical abuse, sexual harassment of women workers and non-payment of wages by the owners. “Jo log malik ko jaante hain, who toh unse le lete hain(wages). Hum toh thekedaar se poochte hain. Kabhi deta hai, kabhi nahi”, claims Mahender.

The worst affected lot due to this migration is the children. Deprived of education from a very young age, these children have no choice but to accompany their parents to the kilns. Child labour is prevalent in this industry even though the conditions are hazardous. When asked if he did not want to educate his 4 children, Mahender says “Padhaai toh karwaani hai. Ek Master aata tha. Do teen baar dhang se aaya, uske baad woh Master toh har baar peekey aane laga. Isliye humne bachchon ko nikal diya school se. Aas paas koi school bhi toh nahi hai”. The pipeline is ready. “Yeh bhi banega paatla” says Mahender proudly pulling up his son who was busy moulding bricks with his mother. With extremely bleak futures ahead of them, the children languish there in the kilns without any form of recreation or education. Not even the basic healthcare. The girls are deprived of basic sanitation facilities as in most rural parts of India. The strict policies of the owners regarding wages forces the families to employ child labour. For example, the Paatla  job requires the efforts of two people simultaneously. Usually the mother and father are at the job and when the mother steps into the house to cook, the child takes over. “Ab din mein 1500 inth banana hain toh bachchon ko kaamkarna padhta hai”

Prayas, an NGO working for the rights of workers in the unorganized sector for more than 30 years now, stepped in to provide relief to the Inth Bhatta workers in 2006. The subsidiary body Center for Labour Research and Action (CLRA) is the arm of Prayas that deals with labour issues. CLRA was established in 2006 to fight for the rights of migrant workers. It also facilitated the setting up of a labour union to organize the labour force, thus creating a strong voice for wage negotiation, bargaining for health care facilities, etc. Unionisation of workers was extremely essential in this industry. The Inth Bhatta Majdoor Union (IBMU) did exactly that when it was established with help from Prayas and other NGOs, and has since done a commendable job given the complexity of their task. It is very tough to organize a workforce originating from varied parts in the country and not lacking internal correlation.

Since its establishment, IBMU has carried out protests for wage hikes multiple times and has been successful in raising the wage rates significantly over the last 5 years. All this success has not come free of cost though. The owners are now wary of the Union and employ all possible means to prevent any interaction between the Union workers and the labourers. In one instance, the owners of a kiln opened fire at the Union workers when they were approached for explain the physical abuse on a worker. Nevertheless, the Union and CLRA are today a commendable force and are a huge support for the workers.

Despite these efforts, the workers who arrive for the first time to Ahmedabad kilns are unaware of the very existence of the Union, 4 months into the job. “Punjab, Chattisgarh mein toh Union hai. Hafte mein ek baar milte hain saare majdoor. Yahaan lagta nahin ki koi Union hai. Kaunsa Union ki baat kar rahe hain aap?”, asks Kallu, a worker who has come to Ahmedabad for the first time. Thus, though the Union and CLRA are definitely a step towards improving the plight of workers and children, there is a lot of scope for improvement in terms of education facilities, medical aid and basic human rights.

Aap kahaan se aaye ho? IIM? Woh school hai?

Main bhi banoonga engineer!

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