Gethin Chamberlain, in Kolkata, for The National, 31 August 2009
THE pregnancy came all too easily. Monica was 13, and the man in question was her overseer at the brick kiln where she worked about 40km north of the booming Indian mega-city of Kolkata. More than twice her age and married with two children of his own, he was the son of the kiln owner. He had smiled at her as she trotted past him every day, carrying on her head the rough clay bricks shaped from river mud which she would deposit in the kiln to be baked into the building blocks of Kolkata’s expansion.
For each load of eight bricks she carried, he handed her a small plastic token. At the end of the week, the tokens would be tallied up, and Monica and the other girls feeding the furnace would be allocated a few rupees each. For every 1,000 bricks they carried, most girls received 60 rupees (Dh5).
But not Monica. Sometimes when she held out her hand for a token, the overseer, or munshi as they are known, would press more than one plastic disc into her palm. She would smile and say nothing; it made her happy, though she knew there would be a price to pay.
Later, in the evening, the munshi would seek her out in one of the ramshackle longhouses that the workers called home.
“In the evenings there is nothing to do,” she says quietly. “We were given alcohol [a local spirit made from sugar cane]. I drank some of the alcohol and then he wanted to be involved with me&ldots;” She looks down shyly.
There was no question of keeping the baby. An abortion was quietly arranged. There were 15 such terminations among the girls working at her kiln last year alone. A report for the Irish aid agency Goal says the kilns are “akin to a modern form of slavery” where “sexual exploitation, particularly of adolescent girls, is common and is frequently a precondition for the allocation of work”.
Had she received the money she was due, Monica might have considered it a price worth paying. Yet it turned out to have been for nothing, for she and most of the other girls have had little education, and counting the tokens they received was beyond them.
In an environment where knowledge is power and power is something to be abused, they relied on their masters to tell them what they were owed. At the end of the nine months she spent at the kiln last year, she had just 900 rupees (Dh77) to show for her efforts. The owner said she had used up the rest on food and accommodation.
Kolkata is in the grip of a building boom as the mega-city expands dramatically – a boom driven in part by an influx of international capital. Major companies are pouring into Kolkata. Coca-Cola has a bottling plant there; IBM and General Electric are also in place. The information technology giant Infosys is planning a 36 hectare campus employing more than 20,000 people and the bank HSBC has invested in two electronic data processing operations in the city.
ArcelorMittal, the world’s largest steel company, wants to build a state-of-the-art research and development base, while Siemens is planning a major expansion. In July, BP sealed a $1 billion (Dh3.67 billion) deal with Spice Energy, which secured funding from Dubai Investment Group, to dismantle a German refinery and rebuild it outside Kolkata to handle lower quality crude oil.
The Indian government has also been courting Arab investment for the mega-city programme. Earlier this year, CEOs from 100 companies from 13 Arab countries took part in a conference to discuss multibillion dollar investment in real estate and infrastructure projects in a number of cities, including Kolkata.
There is no evidence to suggest that any of these companies are aware of the practice.
The result is a construction industry desperate for bricks and a brick industry desperate to make as much money as possible from the boom. Owners have turned to child labour to deliver maximum production for minimal cost. About 1.5 million people work in the brick industry in the region; a third of those are children aged 12 to 18 who have travelled there alone.
Children as young as six mould the clay dredged from the river beds and banks; girls as young as 10 work from 6.00am carrying them into the kilns. The girls migrate annually from their villages to the kilns, some with their parents, some alone, and stay there for about nine months.
Many miss out on any form of education; half are illiterate. Alarmed by that, and by the routine sexual exploitation – in one study, one third of girls and 12 per cent of boys reported that they had been abused – and by the lack of educational opportunities, aid agencies have moved in.
But instead of tackling the owners head on, they are trying a different tack; persuading the bosses to give the children time off between shifts to go to school.
The children still have to work, but the education they receive is at least making their lives easier. Basic numeracy means that at the end of the week, when the munshis come to pay them, they now know how many bricks they have carried and how much they are owed.
There is a problem with this. Though about 600 children aged between six and 14 work in the 15 kilns involved in the project, most mixing mud for the bricks for less than eight rupees (73 fils) for every 10,000 bricks they make, the employment of children below the age of 14 is banned in India. If the authorities were to apply the letter of the law, the kilns would be shut down.
Aware that it is operating on the very edge of legality, Goal it argues that working with the owners is the only way to make a difference. There is little political will to translate the law into action, it concludes.
“Brick kiln owners are, first and foremost, business people. Their motivation is profit. Child labour in the current brick production scenario provides the owners with both optimal production and minimal cost opportunities. Appealing to [their] better nature will yield few results,” says Goal’s report.
Better, the aid workers argue, to work with the owners and try to convince them that it makes good business sense to adopt modern technology, reducing the need for child labour.
In the meantime, if they can lean on the owners and persuade them to let the children have some form of education, they argue, then at least they are giving them a chance of a future and the tools with which to fight for what is rightfully theirs.
The countryside of West Bengal’s North 24 Parganas region, where the bricks are made, is dotted with large prawn farming lakes. The chimneys of the kilns poke up, thin and black, into an overcast sky. Only one, Asha Brick Manufacturing, has smoke coming from it; the fires in the rest are out, the monsoon having put an end to brick making for a couple of months.
At the Asha kiln, the employees are racing to get the last bricks into the kiln before they are ruined by the rain. The school is a white painted brick building in the shadow of the kiln, a rough concrete floor covered by a rug. There are posters of animals on the walls; a polar bear, a whale, an elephant and a crocodile. The teachers are provided by a partner agency working with Goal, the Narayatntala Mass Communication Society. They are trained as teachers, paid for by the charity and originate from the area.
It is 2.00pm and the older children have gone back to work. Outside, nine-year-old Sunu stands on a pile of brick shards with his sister Raji, four months old, on his back. He wakes at 7.00am and plays with his four brothers and sisters and takes care of them while their mother carries bricks to the furnace. He takes the baby to her when she cries.
Sunu watches as, from around the corner of a low building next to a large pool, girls emerge carrying the grey moulded clay bricks on their heads. The older women carry 10, the younger ones eight. They balance them on a pad on their heads, moving quickly and smoothly, along the brick dust path that runs alongside the edge of the oval hollow at the centre of which stands the tall, blackened, chimney belching black smoke out over the surrounding countryside.
They walk in through a gap in the brick walls, deposit the bricks in a stack with carefully located gaps to ensure the correct circulation of air, and sashay back out to collect a token from the deaf and dumb munshi who sits watching them go by.
The girls walk quickly, just short of breaking into a run. Those who the munshi favours get a smile and beam back. One girl palms two tokens and trots off. She can be no more than 10 years old.
The kiln is lit in December and the fire slowly moves round. Those bricks that have been baked are allowed to cool then removed, new ones constantly added. At the height of the production, they can bake 20,000 bricks a day.
At the entrance to the track that leads to the kiln, a group of women and very young children are squatting by the roadside. There are two tiny babies. The women worked until last week and now they wait listlessly for their money. They travelled to the kiln nine months ago from the state of Jharkhand, on West Bengal’s western border, to join the 300 others working at the kiln. Their villages are based on agriculture, but there is never enough work. The children sit in the brick dust by the roadside. Every now and again, a lorry thunders past, kicking up a few stones, before silence descends again.
Pelong thinks she is 32, though she is not sure. She looks much older. She holds on to Seeta, 13 months old, one of her three surviving children. Four others died.
“From childhood I have been earning money for my family,” she says. “I have never been to school. We are from a small village. My family were farm workers and had a small piece of land. I got married at 13, then we started migrating for work. I have been working in the brick kilns for 10 years, nine months here every year. It is hard work.”
They should earn about 9,000 rupees for nine months work, six days a week; men earn an average of 70 rupees a day (Dh5.9), women 40 rupees (Dh3.4). But Pelong has no idea how much she should be due; it depends on how many bricks she carried and she cannot count. The labour contractor loaned her 520 rupees to get there and now he says the interest on it means she is not owed any money at the end of her nine month stint. “But I do get free wood for the cooking,” she adds.
Dulary, about 35, has two children, Chato, a boy of seven and Puja, a girl of 14. She lives with the others near the kiln, in the longhouses separated by mud, with washing strung between the buildings and firewood piled on the roofs. Puja disappeared about a month ago. Dulary thinks she met a boy and is now married. She has no way of finding out. The aid workers think she has been trafficked.
Outside the office, the owner, SK Din Mohammed, 54, leans against the wall. He is well dressed in a clean white shirt, with a neat greying beard and thinning dark hair. He has owned the business for 10 years and is a member of the local administration.
He breaks off to tell the others, who have gathered to watch, to get on with their work. The rains are coming and already 600,000 bricks have been wasted. They lie, damp and useless, piled up around the kiln.
He gets 4.5 rupees per brick for the best quality, 4 for the next and 3.5 for the rest. He sells about four million bricks every year.
“The people enjoy working for me,” he says. “The children come from a poor state. No one educates them there but at least here they have an opportunity to learn.”
There are no children working under the age of 14, he says. “The children you see are helping their families. They are not working.”
The aid agency hopes its efforts will bring literacy levels up to 80 per cent by 2010. But Bhuwan Ribhu, lawyer for The Global March Against Child Labour, says they are deluding themselves.
“I think it is nonsense,” he said. “They are promoting these crimes by not raising their voices against them. They should be going after the overseers. If a child is not getting the minimum wage, if the girls are being exploited, they are working as slaves. The government should be forced to open schools and the kilns should be shut down.”
At the entrance to the kiln, Monica skips barefoot through the gap in the stack of bricks, stretches out her pale palm to grab the blue token from the hand of the munshi. Their eyes meet for a moment and she giggles before disappearing off down the path. Nothing is said; nothing needs to be said. Later on, they might meet up. The nights are long. And tomorrow her pile of counters will grow a little higher than those of the other girls. Monica will hope that the price this year is not too high to pay.