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Women kiln workers risk health, pregnancies in race to reduce debt

Migrant women and children labouring round the clock moulding bricks 

struggle to access food and essential health services

Anumeha Yadav

A woman brick kiln worker takes her weight at a health camp organised by a local nonprofit. Nearly all women at the camp were found to be underweight, weighing below 40 kilos. Anumeha Yadav/The Migration Story

Naujheel, Uttar Pradesh: Suma Devi, a brick worker from Bihar’s Gaya, used the phrase “khat rahein hain” – ‘being worn down’ – to describe labouring at the kilns in Uttar Pradesh’s Mathura for the last 16 years. 

Suma, has a small frame and sunken eyes, traced her feeling of weakness and being sick to six years ago, when her daughter was born. Soon after she gave birth, Suma was diagnosed with tuberculosis (TB). She left her nine-month treatment midway to seek wage-work at brick kilns, 900 km from home.

“I don’t feel well. I have not gotten better in 5-6 years,” Suma Devi said, out of breath as she coated clay in sand, rolling and using a wooden frame to mould it into rectangular bricks on a sweltering day.

Migrant workers, particularly seasonal migrants like Suma, are entitled to public health care services including free treatment for TB, even when they are working away from home. But lack of identity cards and the location of brick kilns on the outskirts of villages, cuts them off from rural healthcare schemes and services, with women and children at kilns most impacted.

Suma Devi, a migrant from Bihar, was not able to complete her nine-month tuberculosis treatment as she had to migrate to repay a debt she had taken from the kiln lower last year. Anumeha Yadav/The Migration Story

Despite feeling ill, Suma started work at 8 am to start moulding bricks. In the breaks she took from moulding, she cooked for the family and swept the temporary brick hut that she and her husband built at the worksite. After sunset, which gave some reprieve from the summer heat, she began moulding bricks again, hoping to make at least 2,000 bricks till 1 am.

The brick kiln owner would pay her husband Rs 500 for every 1000 bricks Suma Devi’s family of three would jointly make.

The landless family has no choice but to do this work, said Suma, who belongs to the Manjhi caste, categorized as Maha-Dalit, among the most marginalized in India’s caste hierarchy.

They had borrowed Rs 80,000 last year from the kiln owner and had hoped to clear it from their earnings during the brick baking season - typically between November and early June - when they migrated to Naujheel in Mathura in October last year. But at the end of nine months, they still owe Rs 30,000 and have been forced to borrow more money to make ends meet.

“We cannot repay the advance, because I keep falling ill,” said Devi, explaining why she felt the pressure to increase the number of bricks they made, and thereby work longer hours.


“We have spent up to Rs 12,000 on medicines and tests at a private clinic. We have to borrow more and more,” she said, adding that she had no information about the government's free TB treatment programme at the kiln.

A child moulds a brick at a kiln in Mathura, India. In most kilns, women and children do moulding work, making bricks out of clay. Anumeha Yadav/The Migration Story

“The women usually spend less than six months in their village and their rights are curtailed,” said  Lokesh S, executive director of NGO Centre for Education and Communication (CEC), that works on healthcare of migrant women and children in brick kilns.

“In the kilns, the women are neither registered as a primary worker, nor even informally in registers. If they were registered as workers, they would get paid maternity leave and other assistance,” she said.

Workers are required to have a Mamta card - a health card for pregnant women and lactating mothers that records antenatal care and essential vaccines -  or Aadhaar, India’s social identity card. But many workers do not travel with these documents fearing losing them, labour rights campaigners said.

“I have spent the last 15-16 years this way going back and forth from Ramchak (her home in Bihar) to UP,” said Suma. “I know my health is deteriorating.”



On a hot May day, as city commuters in air-conditioned luxury cars zipped at 100 km an hour on the Yamuna Expressway, a narrow exit led to Naujheel and the village of Meerpur.

Dotted with parched fields and rows of chimney stacks billowing smoke from kilns, Meerpur resembles a large settlement, with workers residing in huts they make in the fields, and an earthen shop-floor stacked with hundreds of thousands of bricks.

When The Migration Story visited Meerpur, Manta Devi, a moulding worker, was in her hut breastfeeding her one-year-old son whom she had given birth to at a brick kiln across the road.

Under India’s Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS)  - a government programme - Manta is entitled to supplementary nutrition of one kilo of daliya (broken wheat) or oats every month, so that she gets at least an additional 600 calories of energy and 18 to 20 grams of protein a day while lactating.

But she could not access her food entitlements, as she is a seasonal migrant worker.

Asha Rawat, the Accredited Social Health Activist (ASHA) - health workers in rural India - at the anganwadi (state-run child care centre) in Meerpur acknowledged the need to include the women migrant workers under the schemes, adding that she was unable to do so.

“The kilns are located 3 to 4 km from the village,” Rawat said.

“We see that the women and children there (at the kilns) are very very poor, hum dene ke ichchuk hain. We want to serve them. But we barely cover the local children and women who are supposed to get take-home rations,” she said, pointing to shrinking social budgets.

Despite a plethora of schemes for maternal health, the migrant women, mainly from Bihar, Odisha, Chhattisgarh, who had traveled to the kilns in Mathura could not access even basic health check-ups which the ASHAs provided routinely to village residents just 1-2 km away from the kilns.

Last year’s ICDS budget to feed infants, pregnant women, lactating mothers was 40 percent less in real terms than the 2014-15 budget. 

“We get no additional provisions to include those from outside the state,” said Rawat, who like every ASHA is required to attend to basic health needs of a population of 1,000 residents, including antenatal care, vaccinations during pregnancy, and accompany pregnant women in the village for deliveries to the primary health center. 

Women brick kiln workers attend a health camp organised by a local nonprofit. Nearly all women at the camp were found to be underweight, weighing below 40 kilos. Anumeha Yadav/The Migration Story

Health workers said they would respond if they receive a call from the kiln owners about a delivery about to happen, but could not actively seek out cases as they did among local residents.

“We tell the kiln accountant to send the pregnant women to Surir primary health center or Naujheel Community Health Center,” said Hemlata Chauhan, an auxiliary midwife in Naujheel.

Like Suma, many workers who get a piece rate payment in brick kilns and have debts to pay off, fear unfair wage deductions for missing work. Most women at these  kilns did not know who their ASHA was or how to contact her. They also expressed hesitation to ask the kiln accountants who supervised the work about pausing moulding and commuting outside the kiln.

Vidya Devi an Adivasi brick worker from Nuapada in Odisha was three months pregnant, but did not yet have a Mamta card that is a record of antenatal care and essential vaccines.

“I feel weak, I have a headache and a backache,” she told The Migration Story. She had no information on how to reach the local ASHA worker, who in turn had not yet found or enrolled her in her care.


India is the world’s second largest brick producer after China. In 2017, JS Kamyotra, former director of the Central Pollution Control Board, put the number of brick kilns in India at over 1,40,000, growing at an annual rate of 5-10 percent.

Calculating that 200 workers reside in each kiln on average, researchers estimate 20 million poor work in kilns, nearly half of whom are women and children. A majority of these kilns are concentrated in the Indo-Gangetic basin in Uttar Pradesh.

In 1996, the Supreme Court banned the use of coal in a number of polluting units within a 10,400 square km trapezium-shaped area holding 40 protected monuments, including the Taj Mahal.

In 2016, to further lower urban air pollution, the National Green Tribunal banned operation of brick kilns in the national capital region around Delhi. Forced to shift, the kilns are now concentrated in a region in Naujheel and Mant blocks on the rural outskirts of Mathura, 110 km from Delhi.

While such directives have been consistently given to the brick kiln sector keeping the environment in mind and to ensure a transition from coal, there are no similar directives that mandate safeguarding of workers’ rights, particularly healthcare and protection from rising heat, labour rights campaigners said.

A common perception around internal migration in India is that it is dominated by young men not particularly needing health care, pointed out Sudhir Katiyar, who has been organizing brick workers in unions to demand minimum wages and social security.

However, in the brick sector, the system of payment by unit of production (payment per 1,000 bricks) rather than number of hours incentivizes family labour, including child labour, he said. 

A woman moulds bricks from clay at a brick kiln in Mathura, India. Anumeha Yadav/The Migration Story

Every year, after the monsoon, millions of women – including pregnant women, their infants and children – travel long distances to seek work in brick kilns for nine months. The season usually starts in October and ends in early June, with kilns shutting down with the onset of the monsoon.

The women workers have no say in when or where to migrate, often moving during a pregnancy or despite an illness. They also don’t get the wages directly, which are paid to the male workers.

The Migration Story interviewed 50 pregnant women working in the kilns in Naujheel and found that they continued work with limited or no access to nutritional meals or care.

Despite repeated migration, many also did not hold a ration card that entitles each  family member to five kilograms of free grains every month or health insurance meant for those below the poverty line.

Twenty-year-old Pramila from Gaya, living on the outskirts of Palkheda village, was over six months pregnant. She had had abdominal pain for a month but had continued working through it for three weeks because of work pressure.

She consumed mainly potatoes with rice or rotis, could barely afford vegetables, and was not taking any iron and folic acid supplements. 

“We cannot afford to eat dal (lentils) when it costs Rs 100/kg,” Pramila said. “On most days of the week, we eat roti (bread) and potatoes, as they are cheaper at Rs 25/kg.”


A 2022 research on the health of migrant children in brick kilns of Bihar, found that the cumulative effects of the women’s gruelling labour, inadequate nutrition and the struggle to access basic healthcare was evident in the health of the infants growing up in the kilns.

Babies born during migration, or those who have migrated multiple times with their parents, remain especially vulnerable to chronic undernutrition and are more likely to be stunted, the research found.

On May 9, more than 50 women workers queued up in the shade of a keekar tree at the edge of Madhav kiln in Naujheel, to see a private physician presiding at a health camp organised by the non-profit CEC.

Of the 50 women, nearly all were underweight, and not even one’s weight crossed even 40 kg, records at the camp showed. Most infants held in their mothers’ arms had visibly lightened hair colour, that doctors associate with malnutrition in children.

One-year-old Kartik weighed just 2.9 kilo at a medical camp held at a brick kiln in Mathura, India. His mother, Heera Devi said she was worried he was not growing well. Anumeha Yadav/The Migration Story

Heera Devi, a young mother, was anxious that her one-year-old son Kartik was weak and could not sit up at even 12 months of age. She said she usually lays him on a sheet on the earth when she works. 

On the scale, Heera weighed 37 kg and Kartik just 2 kg and 900 grams. He was severely underweight. “I feel he is not growing, but shrinking,” she said, worried. 

The NGO worker asked her to consider getting Kartik admitted at the treatment center for infants with malnutrition in Mathura, 40 km away. But for Devi, it was out of the question. She lacked trust in how such a center may help, and as the family was working to pay off a loan of Rs 70,000 against wages, she said she could not miss work for a week.

Manisha, a 10-year-old girl, had brought her 18-month-old brother to seek treatment for diarrhea. He had been suffering for three days. “He is going unconscious from the illness,” she explained to the staff at the health camp, pointing to her infant brother whose face was covered with black soot spots, nazar teekas, the family’s effort to ward off the evil eye from his health.

Lalit Singh, the CEC block staff who had coordinated the health camp took help of a worker from the same kiln to get in touch with the toddler’s parents. He called to ask them to walk one km to the camp so that the visiting doctor could talk to and instruct them in person for their son’s treatment. But he ended the call quickly.


“The parents are very worried, but they cannot agree to come to the camp themselves,” the worker told Singh. “The mother wishes to come and see the doctor. But, the boy’s father is angry and says she cannot afford to miss their target of brick production for today.”

(Anumeha Yadav is a freelance journalist. Her reportage focuses on the rights and social security of lower income workers, primarily migrants to India's metropolises)

This story is the second 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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