The following are excerpts from a fact-finding report by a committee1 of concerned citizens constituted in August 2016 by Jagrut Kashtakari Sanghatana, an organisation working in Raigad district for more than two decades on various issues. The fact-finding team studied the plight of Katkari adivasis from Karjat, Khalapur and Panvel talukas of Raigad district, working in brick kilns operating across the Mumbai Metropolitan and Pune regions.
Seasonal migration of adivasis from upland villages to brick kilns in various parts of these regions has been an integral component of the expansion of Mumbai city and associated real estate development projects. These adivasis have been subject to systematic displacement from land, forest and livelihood resources. Long periods of unemployment during the year have led to conditions of semi-starvation among the labouring communities. This has ensured a labour supply that can be exploited with impunity by contractors and real estate developers. The poverty-stricken people submit due to lack of any other means of survival.
Labour contractors, engaged every year to find workers, use cash advances to entice poverty-stricken tribals for brick production work and to keep them tied down to it. Forced labour and debt bondage are widespread in the brick kiln industry. Conditions of unemployment, landlessness, and poverty ensure that most of these workers are forced to continue working for the contractors and brick kiln owners season after season, year after year, under unjust and inhuman working conditions.
This is nothing but the continuation of the vethbegari system of forced labour. The present construction industry is sustained by the cheap labour of the toiling masses, including from the tribal belts of the country.
The report initially describes the manner in which the Katkaris are being deprived of their livelihood (reduction of agricultural work, displacement for projects, land-grabs by real estate agents, and paltry earnings from agriculture).
Overview of the Brick Kiln Industry in Raigad District
According to information obtained by the Sanghatana from the Karjat tehsil office, only few brick kilns are at present registered with the Government. The study undertaken by the Sanghatana in 2015 however indicates that there are a large number of brick kilns which do not exist in Government records. With each kiln producing several lakhs of bricks, this indicates an enormous loss of income to the Government from evasion of royalty payments. Although brick prices vary with the distance between the kiln and delivery location (sometimes bricks are purchased at the kiln itself), it is highly unlikely that rates would fall below Rs. 6000 per thousand bricks, the minimum rate seen in the blocks where the enquiry was conducted.
In Raigad district, the brick kiln labour force is mainly constituted by members of the Katkari and Thakar tribes. Brick manufacturing involves various stages and tasks from the collection of mud to making bricks and selling them in the market. Thus, different types of work are available at brick kilns including cleaning the baking area, sweeping, digging the pits, making the mud mixture, loading and unloading trolleys with mud, making different types and sizes of bricks, putting the mixture in the mould to make raw bricks, drying them, keeping brick furnaces fired day and night by feeding coal and husk into the kiln, unloading bricks, carrying bricks and many more. Wages differ according to the type of work undertaken, and are also found to vary across brick kilns. Brick moulding and making involves back-breaking labour. Considerable skill is required to produce bricks with minimum breakage or damage to them, yet it continues to be considered an unskilled, low-profile job.
Skilled labourers are thus needed in large numbers to make bricks, but with no accurate record of kilns, there is also no information on brick kiln labourers with the Government. Trusted family members of brick kiln owners or salaried employees – at times also from the Katkari community – are appointed by owners as supervisors (mukadams)to monitor the labourers. These supervisors take attendance, delegate work among the labourers, supervise the work done, note it in their records, and ensure that labourers do not leave or run away from the kiln. The supervisors are paid according to the number of labourers they have to supervise and are responsible for controlling and keeping them under surveillance.
The Process of Entrapment
Case 1: Cumulative Indebtedness
Brick kiln worker Maruti Chima Waghmare stated that he had borrowed a total of Rs. 37000 from a brick kiln owner in 2015. Out of that, he was told that Rs. 24,000 was settled through his work on the brick kiln in the last season and Rs. 12,000 is still outstanding. Despite filing applications for employment under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act no work has been made available. With no certain work in the village he again needs to borrow Rs. 24,000. It is difficult to live without money.
By the month of September adivasi communities reach semi-starvation levels as limited wages earned from agriculture get consumed. They start taking loans from contractors and brick kiln owners to manage their household expenses, and get trapped into oral agreements. The need for loans is heightened especially during the Ganesh festival. In this period, women need money for food, clothing and other basic needs, but they do not necessarily get the cash in hand. The men generally borrow more money than needed, and spend a large portion of the loan amount on alcohol.
During the Dussera and Diwali festival time, brick kiln owners, with the help of contractors, send trucks to the families who have borrowed money. These trucks usually arrive in the dead of night, when all are asleep. They force these families to get into the trucks along with their entire luggage and travel overnight to the villages where the kilns are located. Varied reasons were given for this clandestine, forced rounding up of workers including illegality of kiln operations, and the need to keep labourers in the dark regarding kiln locations in order prevent them from returning to their village, as well as the suspicion that the adivasis would renege on their debt-repayment if they were given half a chance.
Conditions of Labourers in the Brick Kiln Industry
On the first day the brick kiln owner gives an initial amount of Rs. 500 to the labourers to buy groceries and make arrangements for their family’s day to day subsistence requirements. Workers are also given a day’s time to clear the ground and build a shelter in which they would stay for the duration of the kiln’s operation. Workers are expected to bring with them all materials required during their stay at the kiln, including material to build their shelter, cooking utensils, clothes, etc. With limited space, time and resources the shelters built by the workers are flimsy shacks that are usually so small that they barely have space to sleep in them. Immediately after putting up their temporary shelters work is started.
In many cases the entire family works at the kiln, but other than one man from the family, there is no record of any of the members. Typically, a Katkari family working at the kiln includes husband, wife (the brick-making couple is called “paatli”) and their two to three children. At times the man’s siblings and parents also form a part of the family labour pool. Men, women and children – particularly those who work on trucks and tractors – are kept working continuously in the hot sun with no respite.
Case 2: Bound by Poverty and Fear
Madhukar from Raspe tribal hamlet belonging to Tebre Gram Panchayat, Karjat taluka is working on the brick kiln owned by Manohar Kanwalkar in Vavanja village, Panvel taluka. He shared that, he took a leave from work for day. He went to the dispensary and doctor put saline. The brick kiln owner sent a person to call him back to work. When he went to meet the owner, he was beaten up by a stick with wire attached to it used for beating bulls. On the next day he was forcefully taken to dispensary for treatment. Madhukar didn’t file complaint in police station because he was scared. He was saying that the brick kiln owner is always in intoxicated condition due to alcohol consumption. He beats people anytime, pays money to police therefore they don’t listen to Madhukar. Four years back Madhukar borrowed Rs. 80000. Out of that he returned Rs.70000 but remaining Rs.10000 is yet to be paid. Madhukar feels it is necessary to go there for work because this year he again borrowed Rs. 30000. The wages are not available in the local area so he feels that there is no other option but to borrow money.
Since the labourers stay at the kilns, they are considered available for work at any hour of the day, and sometimes night. There are times when they have to work for 24 hours at a stretch. They are often beaten if they don’t go for work, whether for illness or other reasons. If a labourer runs away due to excessive work pressure, their women and children are kept hostage, sometimes even tied up and starved, till the labourer returns.
Case 3: Enduring Permanent Disfigurement
Ramesh belongs to Gaurkamat village, Karjat taluka. He borrowed Rs. 4000 from a brick kiln owner in Kalyan. He didn’t go to work for a day, so he was incarcerated and beaten up in the office by the owner. Despite knowing that he had a disability in one leg, acid was thrown on the other leg. He was then thrown out without any money for medical expenses. His family spent Rs.16,000 for his treatment.
Pregnant women working at the kiln are given no concessions; a pregnant woman is expected to keep working like the others till she delivers the baby. She has to compulsorily resume work by the sixth day after the delivery. There are no separate facilities for bathing or sanitation for women at these sites, leading to health issues and problems of safety. Women are frequently physically and verbally abused. Kiln owners sometimes harass women by throwing their husbands out. They undress men and beat them up in front of their wives.
Case – 4: His Money or His Life?
Parshuram is 26-year-old man staying in a hamlet called Kumbhiwali with his family, which includes his wife, daughter, brother and sister-in-law. Both the brothers used to work on the brick kiln owned by Rangnath Sakharam Mangrulkar, at Ghewar, Kalyan taluka, Thane district. They were working there because they borrowed some money from Rangnath. One day, the contractor told Parshuram’s wife to carry a set of 1000 bricks. She completed the work and informed the contractor of this. After completion of this work she went to her shack to take rest as she was not feeling well, but the contractor complained about her to the brick kiln owner. With no record of her work, she was unable to prove that she had worked before taking rest. The owner Rangnath started beating her up. When Parshuram went to save her, the owner beat him up as well. The next night, Parshuram and the family ran away under cover of darkness. He saved his life but he didn’t get anything in return for his hard work. It has been a year after this incident, but he still hasn’t got the wages for the work he had done at Ranganath’s brick kiln. On the other hand, due to the fear of reprisal for daring to run away, Parshuram doesn’t stay in his village during Diwali but goes to other villages instead, until he feels it is safe to return.
Customarily workers are given one day off in a week, on the day of local weekly market. On this day the workers are given a lump sum of about Rs. 500 to get weekly provisions such as foodgrains, medicines, clothes, soups, oil, vegetables etc. Some workers and their families get more money while some get less. The amount given varies depending on the individual bargaining capacity of the worker, and it is adjusted against their wages at the time of closure or settlement.
The wages of the labourers are decided by kiln owners. Rates reported to the Committee for bricks manufactured ranged from Rs. 200 to Rs. 600 for a set of 1100 bricks while the same bricks are sold at a rate of about Rs. 6600. This would amount to a mere Rs. 27,000 in wages for producing one lakh bricks, while the owner earns around Rs. 6 lakhs from the sale of the same. Working six days a week, a Katkari family generally makes 1,500 bricks in a single day, which comes to 36,000 bricks in a month. Considering breakage and quality, a family generally makes 30,000 bricks per month. Every family works for six to seven months in a season at the brick kilns, and one would expect that they earn in proportion to the number of bricks made. In reality, complete wages are never paid.
Case – 5: The ‘Food for Work’ System in a Karnataka Brick Kiln
Devki Pandu Mukne, a 60-year-old woman, hails from Nandgaon (Vitthalwadi), which is 50 kilometres away from Karjat. She and her late husband borrowed Rs. 2000 from a brick kiln owner three years back. The latter took them at night in a vehicle to a brick kiln at Daulafar Nagar in Karnataka. They were kept working at the kiln under forced confinement for three years. Food grains such as wheat, jawar, bajara etc. were provided to them, but if they asked for money they were beaten up. Permission to return home was refused even when Devki’s son fell sick. When she started pleading, the owner took them up to Pune in his car and put them onto a Karjat-bound train. He left saying he would get them some vada pav for the journey, but never returned. The couple were not paid their wages and had been left with nothing to eat. The few rupees saved from the original loan were used to reach Karjat. From Karjat station they walked all night to cover the 50 km stretch back home.
While records of loans taken and work done are maintained by the labour contractor or supervisor and discussed with the owner, final wages are calculated by the brick kiln owner himself. Interest on the loan taken by the labourer is deducted before final payment. Although records are maintained by the contractor in small notebooks, final calculations are often done verbally, leading to high possibilities of mistakes, cheating and deliberate manipulation. Instances were reported where workers are paid wages for one lakh bricks when they have actually produced 1,20,000 bricks. Workers’ calculations, however, have no place in the process. Signatures or thumb impressions of labourers are taken on stamp paper, stating the number of bricks produced and payment made for this, but labourers never get a copy of this. If labourers ask for a copy, they are denied saying that it’s useless for illiterate labourers and that the document will be shown when needed.
In June 2016, the Government of Maharashtra published revised minimum wages for brick kiln labourers in its extraordinary gazette. Though the mandated minimum wages for brick kiln labourers under the Minimum Wages Act are not sufficient, brick kiln owners don’t even pay this amount.
Workers’ Individual and Collective Struggles for Justice
The Jagrut Kashtakari Sanghatana (JKS) has tried to free many brick kiln labourers and their families from oppression and bonded labour. Information regarding follow-up done with brick kiln owners from Karjat, Panvel and Khalapur taluka by JKS was given to the members of fact finding committee. Three of these cases are presented below to illustrate the nature of interventions.
Case 6: Savagery of Brick Kiln Owner in Thane District
In 2009 Anusaya Chandrakant Bhosale from Raigad district borrowed Rs. 20,000 from Ashok Dongre, a brick kiln owner from Sherapada in Thane district. She claims to have repaid the loan by working for three years on his kiln. Yet in 2013 he forcibly took away her husband and mother-in-law. Anusaya waited for eight days to hear from them, and then filed a case of abduction at the local police station. However, this didn’t help her. She approached the Sanghatana, who then pressurised the police to register a complaint and demanded that they rescue her husband and mother-in-law. The police, village heads and Anusaya went to the village of the brick kiln owner, but he disregarded the police. Members of the Sanghatana kept reminding the police about the Bonded Labour Act and demanded that a case be filed against the brick kiln owner for kidnapping Anusaya’s husband Chandar Bhosale and mother-in-law Kashibai Bhosale. Due to the Sanghatana’s pressure, the brick kiln owner relented. Still he demanded Anusaya pay him Rs. 65,000. Fearing the threat to her family, she prepared to arrange for the money to pay him, but she informed the Sanghatana about it. On hearing that the Sanghatana had initiated steps to file a case against him, Ashok Dongre stopped threatening her and asking for money. Anusaya and her family finally escaped from the clutches of the brick kiln owner. Since this experience they stopped working on brick kilns for a few years, but with rising indebtedness have been forced to go back to the kilns for survival.
Case 7: Fighting for the Right to Exit Bonded Labour
Ramesh Shaniwar Pawar, who is from a hamlet called Varosewadi, worked at a brick kiln owned by Pradip Patil Kalote in 2014-15. In 2014 Ramesh had borrowed Rs. 10,000 from the owner. He worked for six months that year and then informed the owner that he was leaving the job as he had done sufficient work to repay the loan amount. The owner didn’t have any record of Ramesh’s work or written calculations of his wages. In 2015, during the Diwali season, the brick kiln owner arrived to call Ramesh for work. When Ramesh stated that he was not obligated to work for him as he had not taken any loans from him, the brick kiln owner told him that more than Rs. 12,000 was still outstanding against the money he had borrowed the previous year. Ramesh said that he wouldn’t be able to work at his kiln in the coming season but that he would somehow pay Pradip Kalote Rs. 14,000 (the additional amount being a bid to avoid future harassment). The owner agreed to this form of settlement in a village meeting.
After a few days, the brick kiln owner called Ramesh and asked him to bring him fresh vegetables from his fields and meet him at Chowk Road. Scared about antagonising this powerful man, Ramesh went with the vegetables to Chowk road. The owner forced him to sit in his car and beat Ramesh with the help of other adivasi labourers whom he had brought with him. He was thrown out on the road in an unconscious state. On gaining consciousness, he prevailed on a passing biker to take him home. He shared what had happened with the villagers, who in turn informed Sanghatana members. The Sanghatana and villagers jointly filed a case at the Chowk outpost, but failed to get any support or response. In the end they filed a case at the Khalapur police station under the Prevention of Atrocities Act and the relevant Indian Penal Code sections, and also informed the Khalapur Deputy Superintendent of Police (DySP). In solidarity all the villagers of Varosewadi stopped working under Pradip Kalote after this incident.
Case 8: The Battle Fought by Brick Kiln Labourers
Janardan and Nira are a husband and wife who were working on a brick kiln owned by Mr. Gawli at Kolhare, Neral. On getting news of the death of a family member, they left for home, but they were stopped by the brick kiln owner. When they ignored him and left nevertheless, the brick kiln owner beat and tied up their son, who had stayed behind to continue working. On hearing of this, instead of going to the funeral, Janardan returned to the brick kiln. He rescued his son and ran away with him the same night. Eighty per cent of the agreed work had been completed by this time.
After a month the brick kiln owner came to Janardan’s house at night in a Tata Sumo car. Instead of going into his house, he called Janardan and told him to sit in the car. He started the car and after going three to four kilometres away, the brick kiln owner started beating him up in the car itself. He threatened Janardan with dire consequences and said that he had to now repay Rs. 40,000 instead of Rs. 30,000. Janardan was left on the road and the brick kiln owner went off. It was now midnight. Injured and severely bruised, Janardan, dressed only in a towel, walked the three kilometres back to his village.
The next day he approached the Sanghatana. In this case also the police were not ready to file a case until the Sanghatana put pressure on them to do so. However, since filing a complaint didn’t have any effect, the complaint was referred to the Deputy Commissioner of Labour for resolution. After continuous follow-up, Janardan and Nira received monetary compensation of Rs.10,000.
Numerous such cases have been taken up by the Sanghatana. Individual brick kiln workers approach them for support and justice when they are pushed to desperate straits or/and when the existing system of law enforcement fails them. Physical violence (often followed by false complaints at police stations by contractors or brick kilns owners against the workers), cheating workers of their wages, forced child labour, confiscating/withholding of workers’ personal effects, and molestation of women have been fought against by pressurising the police and Labour Commissioner’s office to take action, along with direct confrontation of the contractors/owners by the Sanghatana.
Through discussions in adivasi communities and at brick kilns, it has been found that the workers don’t inform anybody else from the community when they go to brick kilns for work. Typically, the Katkari tribal and a brick kiln owner decide the amount of money to be loaned and the process of repayment privately and independently. Since 2010 the Jagrut Kashtakari Sanghatana has been encouraging katkari tribal families to talk freely about the money they have borrowed in front of other people so that this hidden and exploitative tradition of borrowing money can be stopped. This has been found to increase awareness among people about this issue and their capacity to take action against the exploitation, atrocities and oppression which have become an integral part of the cycle of indebtedness of the adivasi brick kiln workers.
With increasing difficulty in finding sources of livelihood due to rapid urbanisation, land grab, project-induced displacement and a simultaneous decline in agriculture, it is found that Katkari adivasis are forced into bonded labour in the brick kiln industry. Ready cash advances are used by brick kiln owners and their labour contractors to lure adivasis into oral work agreements to work in their brick kilns during the brick-making season from October to May. These adivasis are subsequently trapped by their deepening indebtedness and bondage to an industry that exploits their labour under inhuman conditions. During the fact finding process, it was found that brick kiln workers have to face the following forms of exploitation and injustice both during their period of work at the kilns and after they leave.
1. Labourers are picked up for work in the middle of the night in a clandestine, forced and abrupt manner.
2. Passbooks in which labourers make notes of hours worked and wages are forcefully taken away from them. Labourers don’t get these passbooks even after demanding for them. These books are shown only if the labourers succeed in filing an official complaint.
3. Labourers are not permitted to take leave from work to go home even in case of sickness or death of family members.
4. Verbal abuse in the name of caste and community, accompanied by physical violence is frequently seen. Threats of being beaten, killed or having their hands and legs broken are used to keep labourers at work. Severe beatings are meted out for delays in completion of work.
5. Labourers are also ‘punished’ for alleged misdemeanours by being deprived of food and tied up or confined in small rooms.
6. Labourers are forced to work long hours without a break. Sometimes men and women work for 12 to 14 hours continuously.
7. No alternate arrangements are made for the continuing education/schooling of children. Youngsters are made to work on trucks or trolleys for 12 to 14 hours of the day, with minimal or no wages.
8. Women labourers are frequently abused sexually at the work sites. Husbands and wives are also sometimes separated.
9. Legally mandated amenities are not provided at worksites. For example, no facilities are provided for newly born babies, leading at times to infant deaths due to cold and exposure.
10. Wages for work done are often denied.
1.The members of the committee were as follows: former Justice Shri B. G. Kolse Patil, Lok Shasan Andolan, Chairperson; Prof. Pushpa Bhave, retired professor and social activist; Comrade Uday Choudhuri, trade unionist; Dr. Rekha Mammen, academic; Sangita Malshe, social scientist; advocate Juvekar; advocate Vinod Shetty; Yogesh Pawar, senior journalist; Santosh Dalvi, senior journalist; Vasant Pawar, representative of Jagrut Kashtakari Sanghatana; Janardhan Mukne, brick kiln worker; Jai Waghmare, brick kiln worker. With the assistance of the Sanghatana, the fact-finding committee held a public hearing in Karjat town, followed by group discussions and interviews in villages of Karjat and Khalapur. The Committee met 139 brick kiln workers and their families from across 25 katkari adivasi villages. (back)