It was a sweltering hot Sunday in March in Rajasthan’s Ajmer district, and the only relief that 44-year-old Subhasini Pradhan had from the harsh sun was the shadow of a pile of bricks. The bricks had been moulded by her husband, who, like Subhasini, was a worker at a kiln in Ladpura village to the north-east of Ajmer city. Subhasini, who wore a purple shirt over a purple sari, squatted in the shade. Her elbows were propped against her legs, and her calloused palms were on top of her head. She watched her husband stack sun-dried bricks into a neat pile.
“She has not worked in more than a month,” said Partho, Subhasini’s husband, his tone almost accusing. “She has not made a single brick.”
Since mid February, Subhasini had been unwell with fever, indigestion, diarrhoea and vomiting. “It happened because of the heat and my weakness,” she said. “My body did not have enough water.” She explained that the trouble had begun around the time of Maha Shivratri, the annual Hindu festival, which fell on February 18 this year, just when India was experiencing its hottest February in 146 years.
Similar extreme heat events are becoming increasingly common in India. Last year, India witnessed 280 heatwaves across 16 states – the highest number the country has seen in 12 years. According to a May 2022 study by an international group of scientists, the likelihood of similar heatwaves occurring in India has increased by 30 times since the pre-industrial era. Moreover, the study noted that with future warming, heatwaves like this will become even more common, and hotter.
When a person is exposed to extreme heat, their body starts losing the ability to regulate its internal temperature. This can lead to dehydration, exhaustion, cramps and fever. People can also die from a heat stroke, or face accelerated death as a result of worsening of existing conditions like chronic respiratory and cardiovascular diseases. A recent report by the Indian Meteorological Department noted that among natural hazards, after floods and tropical cyclones, heatwaves had killed the most number of people in India.
Brick kiln workers are particularly vulnerable because they are exposed to high outside temperatures as well as radiant heat from furnaces. A study conducted in brick kilns in Chennai in 2013 and 2014 and published in 2019 found that “occupational heat exposure” – a technical term that includes factors such as outside temperature, and metabolic heat from exertion – in the kilns in summer months sometimes exceeded the international standard limits for safe work.
During the summer months, 94% of the 87 workers surveyed in the study said they faced excessive sweating, 86% complained of tiredness, weakness and dizziness and 67% complained of headaches. The heat also impacted productivity – almost half the workers said that it took them more hours to complete each task in summer.
These impacts are exacerbated by the exploitation workers face at brick kilns, poor living conditions and lack of access to social security benefits. Despite the extreme heat and Subhasini’s illness, for instance, she and Partho have to work almost non-stop, typically clocking in more than 12 hours a day.
Taking a break is an expensive choice for the couple because they are caught in a chain of debt. They had pawned their half bigha of land in Ankori village in Chhattisgarh’s Mahasamund district to pay for medical expenses for treatment for their son’s mental health illness. (One bigha is approximately 0.6 acres.) To repay this money, they took an advance of Rs 35,000 from a contractor who hired them to work in a brick kiln in Ajmer. In October, the couple, along with their son and daughter-in-law, travelled more than 1,300 km from their home to Rajasthan to pay off this debt.
The family spent the next four months moulding between 1,600 and 1,800 bricks each day – they were paid Rs 550 for every 1,000 bricks they made. By the time Subhasini fell sick, the family had earned enough to pay off their debt to the contractor.
But her sickness pulled the family back into debt. Over the one-and-a-half months that she was sick, they spent around Rs 8,000 on travelling to a government hospital 12 km away, and on consulting local doctors and quacks, as well as on medicines.
When her health still did not improve, the overseer at the kiln called a doctor, who gave her intravenous infusions at the kiln. “He put two-three bottles,” said Subhasini, “Since then I have been feeling better, but I am not completely fine.”
As a result of their healthcare expenses, as well as the loss of income owing to Subhasini’s inability to work, the family still has a debt of Rs 25,000. With just seven weeks left in the season to pay it off and save some money, each hour is precious for the Pradhans. When Scroll visited the brick kiln where they were working, a communal lunch was organised for all the workers. The venue was a shed around 800 metres away from Pradhans’ workspace, but the family continued their work, giving up lunch. “Going there, eating and then coming back would take one, one-and-a-half hours,” said Partho. “We can make 300 bricks by then. Eating lunch there would mean a loss of Rs 150. We cannot afford to do that.”
The couple, in the end, decided to continue working, and later eat the food they had at their hut, less than 100 metres away. They continued to stack up dried bricks, and prepare the ground for the next lot of bricks to be moulded. Subhasini decided that she had had enough of a break and joined her husband. Even though her pace was slow, she said, “I have to work, otherwise the supervisor will yell at us.” She added, “If I start caring about the sickness then how will we pay off the debt and what will we eat?”
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India is the second-largest brick producer in the world. According to some estimates, every year, between 10 million and 23 million people like Partho and Subhasini Pradhan migrate to work in 144,000 brick kilns operating across the country. These kilns, which fire up in September and October, work continuously through the summer months till May, breaking for the monsoon.
The workers are hired as a family unit. They are paid an advance based on the number of members in the unit, who can work, including children. They are then expected to work off the debt in the kilns.
“Legally speaking, all the workers in a brick kiln are bonded labourers,” said Shaitan Raigar, general secretary of Rajasthan Pradesh Int Bhatta Majdoor Union, which represents brick kiln workers in Ajmer and Bhilwara. “Because everyone who comes to kilns takes an advance that they have to pay off.” He was referring to the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act of 1976, under which any arrangement in which a worker renders labour in consideration of an advance is a form of bonded labour.
Raigar explained that this system ensures that owners have a regular supply of labour. “This work is difficult and exerting, and so workers are paid an advance so that they stay till the end of the season under the pressure of the advance,” he said. “So the whole system is a trap that is designed to benefit owners.”
Kiln owners resort to this practice because bricks are manufactured in kilns in a continuous manufacturing process – that is, once a kiln is fired up, it is fed with fuel and bricks without interruption, till the season ends. The process relies entirely on human labour – workers mould bricks, transport them to the kiln, layer them, and add fuel to the kiln.
Every year, towards the end of monsoon, kiln owners hire contractors who are given the responsibility of supplying them with labour. The contractor, who gets a commission of between Rs 15 and Rs 20 for every 1,000 bricks manufactured, looks for families in and around his village and offers them hefty advances in exchange for labour. In addition to their advance, families are typically also given allowances every week or ten days to buy food and other necessities – these amounts are also added to the debt that the families have to work off.
Dilip Lahiya, a 48-year-old kiln worker who worked in a kiln for the first time this year, explained that the work was far more gruelling even than daily wage labour, such as on construction sites.
When he took up daily wage work in Delhi, he recounted, “we worked from 9 am to 5 pm and would get paid Rs 400-Rs 500 at the end of the day. In the summer, during the afternoon, our boss would get us cold water and lemon juice and we would get to rest. There is no rest here.”
A brick kiln resembles a temporary village. There are areas marked for specific kinds of work, as well as for housing. The houses are makeshift in nature – shared walls are formed by stacked bricks, without any binding. These structures are topped with a metal sheet, below which a black plastic sheet is usually spread, as protection from rain. The huts are approximately eight feet wide and long, and have an alcove outside for a firewood stove. They don’t usually have any windows or ventilation.
A 2020 report by the Centre for Labour Research and Action, or CLRA, which surveyed between 160 and 213 families each year from 2016 to 2019, in Ajmer and Bhilwara, found that there had been “substantial sprouting of contractors” for brick kilns. This had resulted in a price race among contractors who competed to supply labour at the lowest rate. “Undercutting each other,” the report noted, “they agree to minimum provisions at the workplace, shrinking the entitlements of the workers year after year.” This, it added, had led to “a deterioration of living and working conditions in the kilns”.
Those who work and live under these oppressive conditions are predominantly from marginalised communities. The CLRA study found that almost half of the 903 workers in the kilns it surveyed in 2019 were Dalits, that around 17% were Adivasis and around 27% belonged to Other Backward Classes, or OBC. Other studies have also found similar trends.
Many workers that Scroll spoke to said they would not choose to work in kilns if they had an alternative, and that they were forced to do so because they had limited ownership of land. The CLRA study found that around half of the 170 families surveyed in 2019 owned land, but that the average size of each family’s landholding was just 1.15 bigha, or 0.7 acres. Only 19% owned irrigated land.
“The communities that have more land have more benefits in a village,” said 37-year-old Prahlad Nayak, a Dalit worker from Rajasthan’s Nagaur district. “The sarpanch in our village, who is from an OBC community, has 150 bighas of land. He does not have to worry about anything. But people from our community have two, three or five bighas of land. If we just rely on that, how will we survive?”
Families that do not have land, or own only small tracts, are more vulnerable to being trapped in debt, like Subhasini and Partho. The CLRA study found that in 2019, almost 30% of the workers in the brick kilns were in debt – marriage, sickness and death were the leading reasons for their debt.
The CLRA study found that there are broadly five types of workers in a kiln, each of whom has a specific job, wage pattern and migration pattern.
More than half the workers – between 52% and 58% – are paatla workers, who mould raw bricks from clay.
After this, bharai workers use manual carts to transport the raw bricks to the firing kilns, which can be between 100 metres and a kilometre away.
The furnace itself is shaped like a long oval, with stacks of bricks lined in rows within, from the inside outwards. At any point in time, bricks in one part of the kiln are baked and ready to be removed, while another part of the furnace is being loaded with raw bricks.
Khadkan workers are responsible for stacking the bricks in a pattern that leaves space for fuel. Jalai workers stand atop the stacks of bricks and regulate the supply and flow of the fuel. In the kilns that Scroll visited husk waste from mustard plants was used as fuel. Nikaasi workers are responsible for loading ready bricks onto tractors, which transport them for sale.
While paatla and bharai workers maintain a distance from the firing kiln, khadkan, nikaasi and jalai workers carry out their work right next to it. The heat emanating from the kiln, which burns at between 1100 degrees Centigrade and 1200 degrees Centigrade, adds to the heat stress experienced by these workers.
Anjeet Gautam, a jalai worker, spends 12 hours each day, over two shifts, pushing husk waste into the kiln, with only a piece of cloth on his head to protect him from the harsh sun above, and rubber slippers to protect him from the burning heat below. A layer of mud about half a foot thick, spread on top of the kiln, is the only barrier between him and the scorching fire at his feet.
“In companies, workers get a day off every Sunday,” said Gautam. “But here, even if it is a festival, even if you have some work, there is no day off. We only get six hours for everything. Bathing, eating, drinking and sleeping, everything in six hours.” He added, “The moment six hours get over, we have to get back to work.”
Gautam explained that at first the heat was difficult to bear, but that the workers became accustomed to it over time. “Even if it gets hot or it rains, we will continue working like this,” he said. “Our body has become used to it.”
A jalai worker that Scroll interviewed said that he only slept during one of his two daily shifts, usually for three or four hours – he added that this sufficed for him. But in fact, a lack of sleep could worsen impacts of heat stress. A 2021 meta analysis noted that while there was a lack of data on the question, limited existing research suggested that sleep deprivation might negatively affect the body’s ability to maintain its temperature.
In theory, paatla workers have the option to stop working in the afternoon heat, and work during cooler hours to meet their daily target of moulded raw bricks. Nikaasi workers like Prahlad Nayak do not have this kind of flexibility. They have to load ready bricks onto tractors whenever there is demand for them, and tractors are available. Usually, a workday means starting at 6 am and ending at 6 pm, with a break for lunch. During this period, each time a tractor arrives, workers have to start loading the bricks; once it is full, it leaves to deliver the bricks to customers. The workers then remove the broken pieces of bricks that are left behind in the kiln. After this, workers may be able to rest for some time till the next tractor arrives.
While Nayak has not fallen sick in the last four or five years that he has been working in brick kilns, he said that the work did impact his body.
“The work here is very exerting and then there is the heat and the dust,” he said, “So a person who could have lived up to 50 years of age would die by 40.”
But workers continue to work in kilns because of the immense financial pressures they face. The CLRA study found that around 8% of the 170 respondent families surveyed in 2018-’19, had a “negative balance” at the end of the season – that is, they owed money to the kiln owner. The average amount of debt of each of these families was Rs 12,769.
Not settling this can have severe consequences, workers told Scroll. Partho Pradhan explained that workers were at the mercy of contractors, who were ruthless. “All contractors are thugs,” he said. “If we don’t settle here, they will come to our house and kidnap someone. They will let us go only when we pay or we agree to come again.”
The pressure to avoid such situations and to earn as much money as possible pushes workers in brick kilns to work in brutal weather conditions. To tide over ill-health and pain, they rely on painkiller tablets. In a kiln in Ajmer district, these tablets were sold in a small shop under the shade of a tree, along with packaged chips, biscuits and soft drinks. Each tablet, a combination of diclofenac sodium and paracetamol, helps in relieving pain and inflammation and is popularly called “2 rupaiye wala tablet”, or the Rs 2 tablet, in the kiln.
“Mast kam karta hai”, it works really well, said Kamlesh Malvena, a paatla worker from the kiln, “I have taken it six times already. It works for everything – from fever to all kinds of body pains.”
But 27-year-old Rupsai Khairwar knows well the pitfalls of pushing one’s body’s limits. A few years ago, he and his brother-in-law had gone to a brick kiln in Jharkhand’s Ranchi district – towards the end of the season, his brother-in-law fell sick. “He worked non-stop throughout the summer and caught a fever,” Khairwar said. “Within a week of returning home, he died. The fever had reached his brain.”
He added, “If we work day and night in this heat and pop tablets to sustain our lives, we will face the consequences once we reach home.”
Khairwar does not come to brick kilns every year. This year, he had to, because he had pawned the family’s two acres of land to pay for medical expenses during his son’s birth, and for post-birth rituals. The family came to the brick kiln in Ajmer after taking an advance of Rs 60,000, and have spent Rs 50,000 on weekly expenses. Though they had been working for five months, they remained in debt.
“We have made around two lakh bricks but we still have some way to go before we break even,” said Khairwar, “Earlier, me, my wife and my father could mould almost 3,000-3,500 bricks a day. Now, in this heat, we can barely mould 1,500 bricks. But I don’t push it. Rest is important.”
Heatwaves aren’t the only extreme weather events that are affecting brick kilns. In March 2023, unseasonal rains swept many parts of India, including Rajasthan. The state received 353% excess rainfall between March 1 and April 3, according to data released by the Indian Meteorological Department. Ajmer district received five times the normal rainfall for this period and Bhilwara district received more than twice the normal rainfall. While the rains provided a relief from the record high temperatures in February, for workers in brick kilns, it meant loss of wages and more debt.
On March 30, when Scroll visited a brick kiln in Bhilwara, it began to drizzle – but Maniram, a worker at the kiln, continued working. Though he knew that rain would ruin the bricks, Maniram kept pushing clay out of the moulds. He had already lost 15 days of earnings because of the rain, and could not afford to lose more.
Maniram had taken a loan of Rs 30,000 to help construct a house he was building under the Pradhan Mantri Awaas Yojana scheme – the money he had received under the scheme hadn’t been enough to complete the house, and he was forced to take an additional loan. “I took a loan with interest and that interest has built up a lot,” said Maniram, as he continued moulding brick after brick with expert precision.
Maniram explained that a brick, once out of the mould, was counted as completed, even if it was then ruined by rain. So Maniram decided to continue as long as possible. “When it rained last time, the owner told us to stop,” he said. “He has not said anything so far, so I will continue.”
At another kiln nearby, however, Tarawati and her family had to stop working. While in Maniram’s kiln, workers prepared the clay themselves by mixing dry soil with water and then moulding it, at this one, a machine prepared the clay, which was then distributed to workers. When it rained, the owner stopped distributing the clay, bringing the kiln to a standstill.
In all of March, Tarawati and her husband had been able to do only three days’ worth of work.
“They are not giving us the clay so how will we earn anything?” said Tarawati, “We finished the Rs 10,000-15,000 we could have earned this year feeding ourselves while sitting idle. Now the season is over. What will we earn?”
Tarawati and her family had come to the brick kilns to earn money to pay off a loan they had taken for Tarawati’s husband’s medical expenses. They had earned enough to make up for their advance and allowances just before Holi on March 8. But now, with work at a halt, debts had started piling up again –Tarawati and her husband have five children, and feeding the whole family is expensive, she explained.
Workers’ lives are also affected by extreme weather events in their home regions. Most of the workers in a kiln in Bhilwara that Scroll visited were from Banka and Bhagalpur districts in Bihar. They told Scroll that routine floods in the region affect agriculture and create a shortage of jobs. This forced many to undertake seasonal migration to brick kilns.
Nandakishore Khairwar, who is in his sixties, has been migrating to work in brick kilns for a quarter of a century, and was the only worker that Scroll met who said he liked the work. His family was also the only one that did not travel because they had a loan to repay back home. The first time he went to a brick kiln was around 2000, when many parts of India were facing a drought, which affected 15% of the population. Khairwar’s home state of Chhattisgarh also faced 20% deficient rainfall in 1998 and 2000, marking two of the seven droughts in the state in the 20th century.
“It did not rain and the crops failed,” said Khairwar as he moulded bricks. “So I went to Jammu to work in a brick kiln.” The five bighas of land that Khairwar owns produces rice during the monsoon and stays fallow the rest of the year. “There are no canals near our house. So, we can grow crops only when it rains,” said Khairwar.
After that first trip to Jammu, Khairwar continued migrating each year to brick kilns along with his family. “I like this work better than daily wage labour,” said Khairwar. Because he did not take up work to repay a loan, like most workers, he has greater flexibility to not work when he does not want to – though, of course that would mean accumulating debt because of his family’s expenses. “If I go as a daily wage labourer, I will have to work from morning eight to evening five,” he said.
But the choice to work in brick kilns has cost his children their education. Of his seven children, two are in school in their village in Chhattisgarh’s Janjgir-Champa district, while five have not gone to school. “They could not go to school because I took them with me to the brick kilns,” said Khairwar.
This problem is exacerbated by the fact that, under India’s pollution control regulations, a brick kiln has to be situated at least 800 metres away from places of habitation, whether they are villages, towns or cities. Since schools are located in these places, these rules effectively isolate children who live at the kilns. At seven kilns that Scroll visited, the nearest schools were between one and two kilometres away – parents explained that they hesitated to tell children to walk these distances, fearing for their safety. The pollution control regulations also made it difficult for children to access programmes such as the Integrated Child Development Scheme, which aims to improve the health and nutrition status of young children.
Families also face bureaucratic hurdles – while migration disrupts children’s education in their home villages and towns, they often lack the documentation needed to enroll in schools in the new locations.
In all, these factors, along with the fact that brick-workers are paid by the number of bricks they make, effectively encourage families to make children work. The CLRA study found that 70% of children in the families of surveyed workers lived in kilns, and that 94% of them did not go to anganwadis or schools.
Across seven kilns, Scroll found instances in which the difficulty of accessing education had pushed children into brick-kiln work for life, like their parents.
Sarvesar Chowkidar, who is now 26, started going to brick kilns when he was around seven years old, accompanying his parents. Each year, after the monsoon, the family would travel to different kilns across Punjab and return home to Roopangarh village in Rajasthan’s Ajmer district. “During the four months that I was at home, I would go to school,” said Chowkidar, “But I would not remember much, and four months was not enough. So I stopped.”
Chowkidar has only studied till Class 3. Since his education was disrupted, and he had had an early introduction to brick kiln work, Chowkidar continued working in kilns into his adulthood. At 26, Chowkidar is now the father of two children – a three-year-old and an eight-month-old. He is determined to educate them. “Because I could not study, I feel like my children must,” said Chowkidar, “Our future got ruined, but my children’s shouldn’t.”
But many parents feel that children are a valuable extra pair of hands that can add to family’s earnings. For 60-year-old Ramsidha, his 12-year-old son and 14-year-old daughter are an important part of the family’s labour unit. In October, around a week after Durga Puja, Ramsidha, his wife and the two children travelled from Uttar Pradesh’s Chitrakoot district to a kiln in Bhilwara, after taking an advance of Rs 50,000 for the family of four.
“My children were refusing to come along,” said Ramsidha. “They wanted to study. But I am old and I get tired and cannot work for long. And there is also no one to take care of them back home.”
He explained that he did hope to send them to schools near the kilns. But, he added, “The nearest school here is two kilometres away. Some children in the kiln used to go there. They stopped because walking this long distance every day, especially in the heat, tired them.”
Experts argue that too little attention is being paid to the suffering of brick kiln workers. This is particularly worrying given that India will soon become one of the first countries in the world to experience heat waves that break the human survivability limit, a 2022 World Bank report noted.
Though Central, state and district-level government departments have formulated “Heat Action Plans” aimed at limiting the damage done by heatwaves, a March 2023 assessment by the Centre for Policy Research found that these plans are inefficient at identifying and targeting vulnerable groups towards whom resources could be directed.
Interventions in the brick kiln industry tend to target pollution caused by kilns, especially since the industry is the third-largest consumer of coal in India. Since 2016, the Central government, and state governments, have been ordering kiln owners to shift from the now predominant fixed chimney bull’s trench kilns to the less polluting zigzag kilns. Fixed chimney bull’s trench kilns are oval or circular in shape – because air travels in one direction and remains for a shorter time inside them, combustion tends to be incomplete and inefficient. In a zigzag kiln, air moves in a zigzag pattern, with repeated changes in direction, which leads to better utilisation of the fuel and less pollution.
While experts welcome solutions to reduce emissions, they also highlight the need to address the health challenges faced by local migrant populations working at the brick kilns. The 2019 study on brick kiln workers in Chennai urged policymakers to place their rights at the centre of any interventions in the industry.
“A lot of the solutions have been about the technology, and changing the technology of the smokestacks,” said Karin Lundgren Kownacki, a climate adaptation analyst at Swedish Meteorological and Hydrological Institute and the first author of the 2019 study.
“That’s why we wanted to look at different solutions from a justice point of view,” she added. “There are issues of poverty, bonded labour and child labour in these kilns, and that is where you should start with your solutions.”
This is clear from the toll that the work has been taking on the health of children. Ramsidha’s children have been working long hours like their parents, preparing clay and moulding bricks. The exertion, especially in the heat, led to Ramsidha’s son falling sick in the summer months last year with diarrhoea and fever. Like Subhasini, he was also administered with two bottles of intravenous fluids to treat his illness.
“These small kids mould bricks and their back also starts paining,” said Ramsidha. “Now the temperature will increase and there will be more sickness – fever, body pain, diarrhoea.” At the same time, he added, their workload will also increase. “The season will end soon,” he said. “So we have to work to our limits so that we earn as much as possible.”
This reporting was supported by the International Women’s Media Foundation’s Howard G. Buffett Fund for Women Journalists.