Nilabati Bangula’s family is among the thousands who migrate seasonally to work in brick kilns on the outskirts of cities like Cuttack and Bhubaneswar in the state of Odisha.
Originally from the village of Belpada in Bolangir district, it was poverty and landlessness that forced the family into this unregulated sector in conditions that can only be described as tragically derelict.
The makeshift hut in which they live, adjoining the Rana brick kiln factory, near Barang in Cuttack is a little bigger than a chicken coop. Erected out of broken bricks and mud, it has a very low roof — about three metres from the ground — fashioned out of crude material.
“We have no other way of earning a living, otherwise why would we leave our homes to slave here?” asks Nilabati, 35. Her family of six — four adults and two children — migrates to kilns like this in November and typically return to their village before the rains.
After a few months at home, the migration cycle starts all over again — usually after Diwali. All the adults in the family — Nilabati, her husband, mother-in-law and brother-in-law — work as ‘chhanchua’ (brick moulders).
A contractor brought the family to Barang this time after paying an advance of Rs 15,000. The money was desperately needed for the marriage of the elder daughter in the family — Nilabati’s sister-in-law.
So all the work that is being done by the family is basically to repay that advance, and hopefully save something for the future. Most days, they work from 6 am to noon, and then again from 3 pm to 10 pm. The food allowance given to the family, of Rs 100 per head per week, which makes Rs 400 for the whole family, is used to buy the week’s provisions at the local weekly market.
What can Rs 400 buy? Explains Nilabati, “We can’t afford to buy rice at Rs 20 per kilo in the open market so we usually get the poorest quality of food items, like broken rice. We buy dry or rotting vegetables and discarded portions of meat at exorbitant prices. Chicken feed, which sells at Rs 3 to 4 per kilogram in the regular market, is sold to us at Rs 7 to 8 per kilo.”
As for the water they drink, it is the same as the water used to mix the clay for the bricks. Nilabati’s biggest anxiety today is how to treat her five-year-old daughter, Rukhmani, who is suffering from jaundice, possibly because of the poor quality of water that is available. Every day, Nilabati says, she pleads with the owner of the brick kiln to either get her daughter to a doctor or let the family go back to their village. “But he doesn’t say anything,” says the anxious mother.
The brick-making process runs like an assembly line. Clay is first mixed and balls are made out of it. These balls are moulded into bricks. The wet bricks are then carried into the field for drying and are flipped over until they dry. These sun-dried bricks are then carried, headload by headload, to be fired. The finished bricks are finally transported to the market.
The work is hard, often back breaking, and endless. Everyone in the family, including the children, ends up working seven days a week. The wages depend on the number of bricks churned out every day. So the men prepare the clay, the kids help transport it to the site and the women fill the mould and prepare the bricks for drying.
Since there are no breaks, women are also expected to work during pregnancies and illnesses. As one woman working at Nilabati’s brick kiln puts it, “We are poor, so the owner treats us like cattle. Like cattle, we too cannot raise our voice against any cruelty done to us by the master. Like cattle we are forced to live in dingy shells, where we have to enter squatting.”
Says Dr Rajkishor Sahu, a medical doctor based in western Odisha, who has worked on occupational hazards in the region, “Each type of work has its own set of health hazards, ranging from infections and fevers, contamination and toxicity-related diseases, respiratory and gynaecological problems, injuries and accidents. Malnourishment takes a huge toll, especially on children.”
These are workers without welfare, health support, insurance or sick leave. Dr Sahu points out, “We have seven- or eight-year-olds looking no more than four. And there is a local saying that after four or five years in the brick kilns, young workers start looking like old people.”
Contractors exert tremendous control over these labourers, forcing them to work even when they are sick or injured. The supreme irony is that although Nilabati’s family has been working day and night, making at least 1,200 bricks per day, they don’t have any idea of how much the owner will pay them.
A chat with Nilambar Swain, who overseas a brick kiln unit near Barang, is eye-opening. Off the record he informs us that the actual rate is Rs 300 for every 1,000 bricks made, but in reality workers are paid at the rate of Rs 150 for 1,000 bricks.
The remaining Rs 150 goes to the middleman. Even at the lower rate, Nilabati’s family should have long paid off their original debt of Rs 15,000 and made at least Rs 7,800 at the end of six months after deducting the food allowance they received. But in most cases, because the workers are illiterate and don’t have bargaining power, they end up getting only a small sum to cover their travel expenses to go back home.
This is basically “survival” migration, which is seasonal in nature and occurs under distress conditions. Women and children are the worst affected. Observes Bhubaneswar-based social activist Amrita Patel, “Although migration is an empowering process — a move made for better livelihood options — in Odisha, the migration of women is disempowering, with women’s dependency on a patriarchal order getting even more intensified. They have no established social safety nets and have to bear the burden of childcare in often hostile conditions.” As for the children, they miss out on education, health care and a normal childhood.
Despite the state government having a special labour cell to monitor migration, both within the state and outside, and to keep tabs on agents involved in illegal practices, it has been largely ineffectual, according to Patel. She also believes that there must be some grievance redressal mechanism, which does not exist at present.
Alekh Chandra Padhiary, State Labour Commissioner, admits that around 1.8 million people migrate from Odisha every year but only 50,000 of them are registered. As a result, it is virtually impossible to ensure that migrants don’t end up getting a raw deal.
The first thing that migrants lose when they move out of their villages is an identity. Umi Daniel, Thematic Head, Migration, Aide et Action, a non-governmental organisation, argues that given this, just keeping tabs on contractors is not enough — the government must be more pro-active in protecting the interests of seasonal and regular migrants, many of whom don’t even know their basic rights.
Their numbers are considerable. A recent study called ‘Migration in KBK Region’, jointly conducted by International Labour Organization (ILO) and Aide et Action, which covered 100 villagers of Kalahandi, Bolangir and Nuapada districts, found that migration from these districts had risen by 20 per cent between 2009-10 and 2011-12. Of these, 51 per cent were men and 49 per cent were women — women like Nilabati. They urgently need help.