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'We work in burning kilns, but this is hotter'

Rescued from forced labour at a brick kiln, a family finds itself trapped in a shelter in New Delhi, enduring a record-breaking heatwave, as they wait to go home


This image is for representation only.

I left home last September to work in a brick kiln in Faridabad. My wife and four-year-old daughter also migrated with me. We are from Sakti village in Chhattisgarh and have been migrating for work for years now. This time around, my son, who is 13, stayed back in the village as he is studying there.

My wife and I worked in the kiln in Faridabad, baking bricks for 16 to 18 hours. We were trapped. We were only being paid 2500 rupees for 15 days of work, which was way less than the 1400-1500 rupees per day we were promised by the agent who had come to the village to recruit us. What we earned was only survival money. 

There were restrictions on our movement too. We were not allowed to speak to any one or leave the kiln compound. I have been working for many years, but I had never experienced anything like this. Fortunately, we were rescued last month by campaigners and officials. We were relieved when we were rescued and that I would get my money soon and return to my village. 

We were brought to Delhi in late April and put up at a shelter for the homeless, a stop gap arrangement until we get our belongings from the kiln at Faridabad and our pending payments for eight months of work. But the shelter is overflowing and there is no space. 

We are living in the open area in the shelter compound now. 

The first few days were still manageable, but the heat has become unbearable over the last 10 days. This is a concrete space - all stones and tiles - and we are living out in the open. We left our belongings in the kiln when we were rescued so we don’t even have a sari to use as a cover over our heads.

In Delhi, I could find work at a construction site but only for five to six days in an entire month. Last week, I got a day’s work to plaster a wall. I made 500 rupees but working outside in the sun is taking a toll on me.

We work in kilns and are used to the heat, but this is hotter. The heat is prickling. I feel my clothes are like nails pricking my body. 

We learnt that authorities have issued instructions that labourers at construction sites should be given a paid break between 12 to 3pm. I don’t think it applies to us, but maybe for those working on government sites. I get a lunch break only from 1 to 2pm 

If we don’t work, what will we eat? But it is too hot to work. We were a total of 53 people who were rescued and brought to this shelter. Some fell ill living in this heat in the open and have gone back to their village. But I have stayed back. All my earnings of eight to nine months are stuck. What do I go back to my village with?

At the shelter, we get tea in the morning. There is a big plastic water tank for those living in shelter, but it has no water. There is a functional tap for drinking water, but it’s just one for about 150 people here. The water comes in the morning from 6 to 11am and then from 3 to 9pm. A few days ago, I managed to get two empty two-litre water bottles, which I fill in the morning for my family to keep sipping water.

Following our rescue, we were given some utensils. While we are provided two meals of dal and rice by the government, we also cook our own meals. We make rice and eat it with a chutney of tomato, green chilli and salt. We have no money to buy oil, dal and vegetables.

But my stomach hurts often. The heat is unbearable, and we are not eating well. I am unable to sleep at night. My child is wilting in the heat, she has lost weight, and I am feeling weak myself. How will I work? 

We have petitioned the governments in Delhi and Haryana to help us with our belongings and our pending payments. It would help us go back home. We have also moved the National Human Rights Commission and are told it is under process.

I wonder what the point of all this progress India is making. People are going to the moon, our roads are getting wider and here my voice is going unheard. I have no access to my own earnings. I am perpetually feeling unwell. I just need a solution, but I don’t see any.

I want to go back to my village. It is hot there too, but there are trees. I planted a mango tree near my house about seven years ago and my son told me it is now bearing fruit for the first time this year. I have also planted lemon and jackfruit trees and they are also fruit bearing now.

There is work in the village but the daily wage rate of 250 rupees is not sufficient for my family. Had the wages been better, why would we leave? I feel a sense of calm and relief in my village. It’s my home, after all. We make nutritious food. We are poor and migrate out of need. We have no choice.

(As told to Roli Srivastava)


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