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Photoblog: The Brick Kiln Kids Of Bengal

It's a harsh life for child migrants.

01/03/2017 5:21 PM IST | Updated 03/03/2017 8:51 AM IST

Every third citizen of India is a migrant. Migration trends released by the Union government and based on the 2011 census have thrown up several interesting patterns. Migrants constitute over 37% of India's population, rising by over 44% since 2001. Among them are the people, including children, who come from Jharkhand and Bihar to work in Bengal's brickfields.

These families are forced to move due to a lack of jobs and diminishing forests. With the breakdown of extended family networks, children have to accompany their parents more often. In 2015, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) put the number of Indian child workers aged between five and 17 at 5.7 million, out of 168 million globally; more than half work in agriculture and over a quarter are employed in the manufacturing sector.

Working in brick kilns

In the brick kiln market, brokers—known as "sardar"—adjust the demand and supply of labour. They recruit seasonal labourers outside of the labour market from their own native villages, where they have good relations with their family members and others in the neighbourhood. They give advances to the labourers who are to be recruited. Once the labourer receives the advance, he pledges his labour and must then work to repay his debt.

Incidentally, the brokers too receive money in advance from the kiln owners—part of this must be used to pay the labourers their advance. The end result is that, in this market, both workers and brokers are indebted. The risk faced by the broker is serious—when workers refuse to follow him, he will lose his money and he will not be able to repay his debt to the owner. He will not receive money from the owner if he fails to recruit workers. For this reason, brokers prefer to employ workers from a familiar pool of people—namely from among their own villages and family members.

Tanmoy Bhaduri
Brick kilns in North 24 Parganas district in West Bengal.

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At least 10 million labourers in India are employed in the unorganised brick kiln industry, toiling under inhuman working conditions.

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Pawan Kumar (name changed) moulds up to 200-300 bricks a day. When I asked how old he is, he shrugs and turns to his parents. "About 13 or 14," replies his mother.

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There are thousands of children like Pawan who spend the childhood working in the nearly 250 brick kilns in North 24 Parganas district of West Bengal. In these brick kilns there is no concept of a school or an educational centre for child migrants.

Tanmoy Bhaduri
These brick kilns serve as a source of livelihood for thousands of unskilled labourers from Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Jharkhand. The seasonal nature of the work attracts migrant labourers, many of them are landless farmers.

Tanmoy Bhaduri
The entire family, comprising husband wife and children, move to the brick kilns and work as one unit for the full season of the operating kiln. "The payment is made to the head of each family based on the number of bricks produced. It is not uncommon to find children involved in the process to maximise income. They get paid for each 1000 bricks they mould but it isn't much for a family, so it's important that the kids help out. An adult can make 500 bricks a day, a kid can make 200 to 300," says a supervisor of a brick kiln in Barasat, North 24 Parganas who is not interested in revealing his identity.

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Reshma says, "I have been coming to work in the brick kiln for the past 13 years with my husband. There are no jobs in southern Bihar. My four children are also with me, I have no options to keep them at home."

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Children have to take care of their younger siblings.

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A girl working in the brick factory carries her young brother on her back. As most families work together in these factories, babies have to be brought along too—the dust is harmful for them, but there is no choice in the matter for workers.

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Children are often forced to sleep in the scorching sun. Even basic education and medical treatment is a distant dream in these brick kilns.

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A closed health centre inside the brick kilns in North 24 Parganas district. The brick kiln supervisor claims that a trained nurse visits once a week and gives medicines to migrant workers.

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A notification from brick kiln owner citing government rules regarding the employment of child labour. Uttam Roy, representative of Bengal Brick Field Owners Association says, "We have no child labour issues in brick kilns across the state. We are against child labour. I don't know from where you clicked photos but they are not child labourers. Children came here with their parents from Bihar. So what we supposed to do? Sometimes children play around the brick fields and photographers make it look as if they are working. "

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A female child labourer recalls, "I used to go to schools when I was in Ranchi, Jharkhand. I came here three months back with my parents. I also work with them."

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Harmful particles in the dust often result in respiratory diseases—workers frequently contend with breathing issues and infections.

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A worker counts tokens—he will get paid at the end of day based on how many of these he has. The workers' daily wages are based on the number of bricks made or carried.

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"Every year I come to Bengal from November to June. Here the rate is higher than Uttar Pradesh. Sometimes we have to work overtime. There are local level brokers (sardar) in villages, they get good commissions but we have no options," says Narmu Yadav, from Gazipur, Uttar Pradesh, who controls the fire inside brick kiln.

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Barefoot girls carrying burnt bricks to the factory area. Atindra Nath Das, regional director (East), CRY—Child Rights and You says, "Engaging children under 14 years of age in brick kilns is a clear violation of child rights, not only because it goes against the existing legal framework of the Child Labour Prohibition & Regulation Act; but also it directly contradicts the spirit of Right to Education Act too, as the children migrating with their families remain out of school for several months and run the risk of dropping out. Fortunately the Union government has recently decided to do regular visits to such places where children are engaged at work. We do hope such endeavours will take working children back to school."

Tanmoy Bhaduri
In April 2015, the National Green Tribunal's Kolkata bench asked the district magistrates of North and South 24 Parganas to shut down more than 600 illegally operating brick kilns. Legal activist Joydeep Mukherjee has filed a PIL seeking closure of the illegal brick kilns. The NGT bench had earlier fined the Murshidabad district administration ₹5000 for not filing a proper affidavit on the brick kilns in the district. The administrations of South and North 24 Parganas have stated that there are 250 and 361 brick kilns in the two districts respectively. However, there are only nine authorised brick kilns in South 24-Parganas and 86 in North 24-Parganas.

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