Ground Report: ‘We’re Not Dying, The Govt is Killing Us’: Toiling Away at Brick Kilns, Will Bihar’s Mahadalit Workers Ever Be Freed From Bonded Labour?
Entire villages in Bihar migrate each year to work in brick kilns under inhumane conditions. NewsCentral24x7 spoke to some of these workers.
On July 1, 2019, Mahadalit workers from Bihar, had been freed from bonded labour at multiple brick kilns in Haryana’s Kurukshetra, staged a demonstration at Delhi’s Jantar Mantar. These workers were forced to work at the brick kilns and were paid only Rs 1,000 to Rs 1,500 every fortnight. If they demanded more, the brick kiln owner would threaten them and sometimes even beat them up.
This group of 80 workers, which included women and children, were brought to Haryana from different districts in Bihar. The contractor who brought them had promised them fair wages but put them to work in brick kilns. For ten months, these workers and their children toiled for 14 hours every day. The brick kiln owner, however, claims that they still owe him money.
While this recent instance of bonded labour received some media coverage, most stories like these never see the light of day. Despite a plethora of laws and regulation, bonded labour thrives in India in various forms. In several districts of Bihar, there are entire villages that migrate each year to work in brick kilns. Most of these people belong to the lower castes — so-called “untouchables”. NewsCentral24x7 visited a few such villages in the Gaya district, to understand the socio-economic circumstances in which these families agree to go work in brick kilns and the conditions in which they are forced to work.
In various villages of Gaya’s Wazirganj block, the Mahadalit tolas are bustling with activity. Manjhi families, the inhabitants of these hamlets, have returned after working on brick kilns for the last nine months. Now, they will work in the village as agricultural labour. Once the monsoon passes, they will return to work on brick kilns for another nine months.
Santosh Manjhi finished working at a brink kiln in Koakaul (district Newada) and came to his wife’s village instead of going home. Even after working for nine months, he was not paid, and returning home empty-handed was not an option. It has been 20 days since he came here, but the contractor has not paid him the due wages.
“Work at the brick kiln has been halted because of the rains. But they haven’t cleared my wages yet. Woh bade log hain, hum kya kar sakte hain? (They’re powerful people, what can we do?)”
A contractor named Sadhu Yadav took Santosh Manjhi and seven others in this hamlet to go work at a brink kiln in Koakaul. None of them, however, have been paid even after nine months of work. These workers, most of whom are illiterate, cannot raise their voice against the contractor because, after rains pass, they’ll be dependent on the same contractor for employment once again.
The new face of bonded labour
Brick kiln workers are paid not how one would imagine — per day, per week or per month — but at the end of nine months. For every 1,000 bricks a worker makes, Rs 500 is added against his name. Working together for 12 hours, two workers can make a thousand bricks. 10-12 hours of hard labour translates into a mere Rs 250 in wages for one person.
But even this calculation, like the lives of these workers, isn’t all that simple. For generations, these workers are forced to toil away at brick kilns. Before the rain arrives, brick kiln owners and contractors approach these workers and convince them to work through the winter and summer for a meagre wage rate. Then, they front workers some money so the latter are able to sustain themselves and their families during the monsoon months.
Jageshar Manjhi (17), who has returned after working at a kiln in Mau district of Uttar Pradesh, says, “At the beginning, we’re fronted Rs 30,000 for the entire family (two adults and two children). Then they tell us that we would be paid Rs 500 for making a thousand bricks. But the money fronted is deducted from our wages at the end of nine months. Similarly, they deduct the money paid to us for food every week. Expenses on essentials, such as medicines, is also deducted.”
Regarding the weekly payment for food, the workers say that they are given Rs 500-600 for sustenance every week. This amount is deducted from their final wages. But even this money is not paid when they’re unable to work. In some places, this sustenance money is dependant on the number of bricks a family is able to make. If they make a thousand bricks in a day, they’re given a hundred rupees, and if they make only 500 bricks, this money is halved.
Surendra Manjhi, who live in the Indira Nagar hamlet of Bairiya village, says, “If you fall sick, there’s trouble. You will not receive any money for food because you haven’t worked. We have to plead and beg. If we take the abuses that are hurled at us, we might get some money.”
The money given at the end of nine months is also not a big amount. Jageshar Manjhi says that they’re able to save some money only from the advance that is given to them. All sorts of expenses are deducted from the wages owed.
There are many people who, forget getting paid at the end of nine months of hard work, are actually told that they’re under debt. Then, these workers are hounded and forced to work at the brick kiln for as long as it takes for them to repay the “debt”. Is this not bonded labour?
The pitiful state of women and children
When a Manjhi family leaves to work at a kiln around the time of Dusshera, it doesn’t leave anyone behind. In this situation, it is the women who have to shoulder most of the burden. In addition to working at the kiln, the responsibility to take care fo the household duties and the children are theirs to fulfil.
Hemanti Devi (30), says, “The biggest problem there (at brick kilns) is living there. There are no toilets. We can’t even go to the nearby fields because men, armed with lathis, stand guard.”
The workers say that the sardar (supervisor) at a brick kiln usually belongs to an upper caste. He hurls abuses at men and women alike.
Shambhula Devi (45) says, “The contractor here assures us that he’s taking us to a decent place to work. But we are mistreated and forced to work under terrible conditions. The people there do not look at us women with good intentions. What more do I say?”
The children of these families are the worst-affected. Their childhood is spent not in schools but in the smoke-riddled brick kilns. They are usually seen helping their parents out with relatively less arduous tasks. Carrying mud, Fetching water and turning the bricks laid out to dry in the sun. But, the remuneration for their labour is included in the wages paid to the family. There is no extra money paid for work that the children put in.
Parasnath Singh, a Communist Party of India (Marxist) worker who oversees party work in Gaya district, says, “The Bihar government had appointed tola sevak (hamlet assistants) to include these children in the schooling system. But no work is visible on the ground. Because the households go to another state to work, there is no point of the tola sevaks. If you look at the children of those working in Bihar itself, you’ll see them working with their families and not going to school.”
He adds that toilets are not the only problem faced by women brick kiln workers. They are subjected to various form of exploitation that they never even talk about. The owners at brick kilns harass these women workers both mentally and physically, and these cases are never reported.
With no alternatives for employment, what else can they do?
In Gaya, the Manjhi community is largely landless. They barely have land to live on, let alone for farming. The Indira Nagar hamlet in Bairiya village was set up on land that belonged to a factory. When the factory shut down, the government allotted some of the land to the families here. Under the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana, a few houses have also been constructed. Around 70 families live here and for most of them, working on a brick kiln is the only form of employment available. They leave the village on Dusshera and come back just before the rains arrive.
Professor DM Divakar, the former director of the AN Sinha Institute of Social Studies in Patna, holds the government responsible for the conditions of these workers. He says “For the last few years, a drought-like situation has prevailed int he state. Even after an Agriculture Road Map and an Agriculture Cabinet, agriculture-related employment is not being created. To create employment in this field, there is a need to bolster irrigation infrastructure. But for the last 15 years, the government has only been making promises. He says that the work to restore the local canals has been pending for years, adding, “There is work on the fields for only 2-3 months. They (workers) will have to go work on the brick kilns for the rest of the year.”
Shambhula Devi says, “When we live in the village, we’re given 1-2 kilograms of grain as daily wages. How is that supposed to help us sustain? If we live here, we die; if we go there (brick kilns), we die. It’s difficult to live anywhere. Even now the government doesn’t understand that if the king has ten bighas of farmland, the poor should be given at least one bigha. We’re not dying; the government is killing us.”
Governments come and go, but the slavery, oppression and humiliation of mahadalit communities remain the same. They are still struggling for survival — roti, kapda, makaan.
This story first appeared in Hindi and has been translated.