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Braving the heat to bake bricks

With fraying wooden slippers and a lemon, salt and sugar allowance, migrant

firemen at brick kilns endure the rising heat


Firemen feed coal and husks into a brick kiln in Diggih, Chandauli, Uttar Pradesh, in extreme heat.

Mughalsarai, Uttar Pradesh: It’s 11 a.m. and a searing 45 degree Celsius in Chandauli district in

Uttar Pradesh. Arjun Mistry’s day has only begun. Mistry, 45, is a fireman at a local brick kiln,

about 250 kms from his home in Laxmanpur village in Pratapgarh, a small town known as

much for its temples and gooseberries as being a hub for firemen. Like Mistry, many

villagers migrate to kilns across India every year during the brick-making ‘season’ between

January and June.

Mistry migrates for four months (March-June), like many others, leaving families behind in

Pratapgarh, where poor irrigation has shrunk farm labour opportunities.

Arjun Mistry (left), a fireman from Laxmanpur poses with colleagues. They work in pairs, rotating shifts to ensure round-the-clock operations.

Work at brick kilns is their livelihood lifeline, but as a heatwave swept across large swathes

of India, with the maximum temperature breaching a record 52 degree Celsius in New Delhi,

it is the harshest work condition that Mistry has ever worked in.

“The temperature is rising each year and I worry about falling ill. I feel more tired and drink

water frequently to cool down,” Mistry said.

“In the villages, we don't have agricultural land. We work as labourers on other farms and for

about four months, we work in brick kilns to supplement our income," Mistry, 45, told The

Migration Story.

Mistry feeds coal into the bhatta (brick kiln), his role critical to regulate the kiln’s temperature,

which determines the quality of bricks produced. His years of experience helps him gauge

the correct brick hardness - a good quality brick does not break or scratch easily.

But to arrive at this quality, four firemen must work in pairs of two round-the-clock. Each pair

works for six to eight hours before taking a break for the same duration, ensuring continuous

operation at the kiln.

Lack of proper gloves, and wooden slippers exposes firemen to extreme heat.

They don’t wear gloves or masks, but are provided with wooden slippers by their employers

to protect them from the heat radiation from the kiln roof and flames. However, firemen like

Mistry said these slippers wear out quickly, and their feet burn in the heat. The flames from

feeding coal into the kiln also burn their soot-stained trousers. Owners, however, said that they do provide safety equipment but workers are reluctant to use them as it hinders their work.

Until a few years ago, firemen received jaggery as part of their weekly rations from the

owners, which brick kiln workers believe is a cooling agent.

“Jaggery kept us hydrated and maintained our body temperature. However, now we receive

a 50 rupees weekly allowance to purchase lemon, salt, and sugar to help cool down our

bodies instead," said Mistry.

The firemen, many of them landless, said working at the kiln meant working for long hours in

the sun, with no shed for protection. But then, they had no other livelihood option either.

“Brick kiln owners’ agents had started visiting our villages, willing to provide advance

payments, so we decided to migrate to the kilns,” Mistry said.

Brick kilns in India are a booming sector. An estimated 100,000 brick kilns operate in India,

with 20,000 in Uttar Pradesh alone, followed by Punjab, West Bengal, and Bihar. Globally,

India ranks second after China in brick production. In rural India, the brick kiln industry is the

second largest employer of seasonal migrant laborers after agriculture.

However, the industry faces challenges due to pollution caused by coal combustion.

Last year, in Uttar Pradesh alone nearly 8000 brick kilns of nearly 20,000 were denied

permission to operate by the state’s pollution control board that ordered their closure.

A worker holds pieces of coal in his hand. Another feeds coal in the kiln.

Chandrika Prasad Yadav, a fireman from Sarailaharkei village in Pratapgarh, said that while

mechanisms like moulding machines and air blowers have been introduced to replace

manual moulding and diesel-operated air controllers, they have proven to be expensive and

do not reduce labour costs. "Even if coal is replaced with other materials, they will still need

firemen to control the fire, as it requires knowledge and experience," he said.

Owing to the rich clay soil in the Gangetic basin, Uttar Pradesh boasts of the highest number of brick kilns in the country, employing thousands of migrant labourers.

For the past 40 years, Chandrika Prasad Yadav, a resident of Sarailaharkei village in Pratapgarh, has worked in brick kilns. He said he didn't;'t want his kids to work in brick kilns and that even he would rather work in agriculture if it paid well.

The firemen earn 16,000 rupees ($191) every month. Most of them take an advance

payment of a month’s salary from the owner through an agent, and the remaining amount is

paid monthly.

"I can earn up to 65,000 rupees (over 500 rupees a day) for my work at the kiln. The rest of

the year, I work as a daily labourer earning 300 rupees per day,” said fireman Yadav, who is

60 years old and has been working in brick kilns for the past 40 years.

Brick kiln owners said that while the government wanted the sector to go green, it wasn’t

providing the necessary handholding for the same.

“We are an unorgansied sector and struggle for bank loans to upgrade our technology,” said

Ratan Srivastava, Chairman of the Uttar Pradesh Brickkiln Owners' Association.

“Besides, the government needs to upskill these firemen so that we can transition to an

energy-efficient industry," he said.

Amid soaring temperatures, a fireman washes his face at a brick kiln in Dixitpur near Mirzapur in Uttar Pradesh. Most of the brick kilns lack water connections in their work sites.

The workers live near the kiln. They make roti and vegetables in the morning, for lunch, and

another meal of roti, dal (lentils), and occasionally rice. But they make sure to drink tea and

water to stay hydrated.

But keeping cool is not an option as water access is often limited or at a distance. While a

few kilns have installed deep tubewells within the compound, in most cases workers have to

walk a distance for a drinking water tap or to take a bath in an open water body.

"Around 285 workers in the brick kilns depend on a single water tap," Ashok Kumar, 50, said.

Most workers don’t want their children to do this job. "My elder son works in the construction

sector, which is less exhausting than my work, and there is always demand for their work,"

Bricks stacked at a kiln in Mirzapur (left). Sri Kumar Saroj, a fireman and a labour agent, poses for a picture at a brick kiln. He got 45 people from his village jobs in brick kilns this year.

said Yadav, adding he would not choose to migrate if better irrigation would revive farms in

his village.

There are also concerns about the impact of extreme weather events on the sector.

Earlier, work at brick kilns started in November or December and continued until mid-June,

said Virendra Kumar Singh, a brick kiln owner.

"Now we start in January-February and end by mid-June. Last year, around 900,000

moulded bricks kept for drying were damaged due to sudden rainfall, and even this year,

rainfall in January delayed our work," he said.

But fireman Mistry believes he will survive, both the heat and the transition to clean

processes in the brick kiln sector.

“We (firemen) receive a monthly salary, and our job requires technical expertise. Not all our

family members are skilled in this field,” he said. “Our job is highly skilled, without us the fires

in the kilns will not burn.”.

(Tanmoy Bhaduri is a Delhi-based development communication specialist)

This story is a first in a three-part series, supported by Buniyaad, a movement for a just transition in the brick kiln sector, which aims to bring social, economic and environmental stories related to equitable change in the brick kiln industry of Uttar Pradesh.


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