No help from owners, govt: Brick kiln workers left to fend for themselves in Telangana

As one leaves behind the bustling city of Hyderabad in the midst of the lockdown and heads towards Ismailkhanpet in Sangareddy, going past the massive Hanuman statue that oversees the town, one cannot miss the expanse of brick kilns on either side of the road. 

Barely a tree stands on the route to take cover from the harsh sun. As we get closer to the brick kilns, tall stacks of bricks, some covered under large black plastic sheets, tower over us.  Each such stack has about 2 lakh bricks, explains Yesubabu, a labourer from Pithapuram, East Godavari district of Andhra Pradesh, as he bends and emerges out of his room, a 3x5 ft makeshift shack. His wife was preparing the day’s meal of rice and charu as her children frolicked, soaking inside the 3 ft tank of water to beat the 42 degrees heat.

But for a few families, the kilns look mostly deserted. “Most of the labourers from Odisha left the previous day,” explains Yesubabu. “By Sunday (which was three days away), we also want to leave,” he adds.

As the simmering discontent of the brick kiln workers began to rise, SWARD (Society for Women’s Awareness and Rural Development) who were engaged in relief work during the pandemic in Sangareddy district, organised a bus through contribution to take them to Odisha. “While about 214 workers left by bus on May 21, another 256 were sent two days later to the railway station to board the Shramik train leaving for Odisha,” says P Sujata Raj, centre administrator from SWARD. 

Lockdown and the state of confusion

The sudden lockdown announced since the Janata Curfew of March 22, followed by four extensions of fourteen days each, caught the working class unawares. With all public transport, buses and trains, suspended, workers who migrated from states like Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Odisha were trapped. In a now familiar pattern, the labour contractors and builders abandoned them with little or no financial assistance to meet their daily consumption needs. The state too failed to reach many of them with its free ration of 12 kg rice, one kg dal, one kg oil and Rs 500 cash on time, leaving the already undernourished population to scrimp on their available ration. 

Accountability towards the workers was never a strong point of the brick kiln industry at the best of times. ‘Brick by Brick’, the report on brick kilns of South Asia published in 2017 by International Labour Organisation, lists a complex web of problems from environmental pollution, animal welfare, violation of child rights to the abject conditions in which workers are compelled to toil in debt bondage.

Though drawing sporadic regulatory attention, the brick kiln workers had remained invisible, tucked out of sight from the main cities. The pandemic brought hundreds of thousands of them with empty stomachs and pockets to the highway, desperately finding their way back home with their newborns, and little children staggering along. 

The Chief Minister of Telangana addressing the migrants in Hindi implored them not to leave the state, calling them his ‘bandhus’ and ‘partners in development’. Two months after his announcement, 76% workers continued to wait for ration, cooked food and nearly 90% wait for their wages. As workers ran out of food and money, with a complete absence of transport, they took the only option of transport left to them – walking.

Residence provided to the workers
In a complete turn around from its earlier observations of May 15 that the court cannot stop migrants from walking, on May 26, taking suo motu cognisance of the plight of the migrant workers, the Supreme Court ordered the Centre and states to provide food, shelter and transport immediately to the walking migrants. While this may have been intended as immediate relief, on the ground, NGOs and civil society groups witnessed chaotic scenes of thousands of hungry, thirsty families walking to their homes on the highways getting stopped and herded into marriage banquet halls that dot the highways till some transport is arranged. 

Writs filed in the court

When 16 migrants died on the railway tracks, the Ministry of Home Affairs had issued letters to state governments on May 11 to ensure workers are counseled against walking home; ten days later the Chief Minister of Telangana too instructed concerned officials to ensure workers do not walk back. In the most bizarre, inhuman innovation, Telangana police began herding all the walking migrants onto Road Transport Corporation (RTC) buses to ‘dump’ them off at Bhoraj checkpost at Telangana-Maharashtra border without any arrangement for their further travel or any basic arrangements for food, water, toilets and other facilities. A writ challenging such an ‘arbitrary, discriminatory and irresponsible behaviour’ was filed on May 28 in the Telangana High Court by Rama Melkote, retired professor and veteran feminist activist, in response to which the Court appointed advocate K Pawan Kumar as the Amicus Curiae to assess the condition of migrant workers stranded at Medchal Highway.

Another writ filed by S Jeevan Kumar, retired lecturer and convener of Human Rights Forum brought to the notice of the court the pitiable condition of the brick kiln workers who were either stranded at the highway or dumped by brick kiln owners at Medchal to let them find their way home. Holding respective district collectors responsible, the petition sought thorough documentation of the brick kilns and the workers who are required to be transported to Odisha without any financial burden on the workers.  The petition also sought appropriate relief of food and shelter to the brick kiln workers stranded on the highway until their travel arrangements are made by the state government. The case is scheduled for a hearing on Monday. 

The organised method in the unorganised sector

Although counted as one of the most exploitative unorganised sectors, the corrupt system is well-oiled over the years. 

“Brick kilns have the worst combination of child labour and bonded labour,” says A Krishna, Vice President, Human Rights Forum who has been working with brick kiln workers for several years. The labour department is aware of this for several years now, however very few cases ‘rise’ to fall under Bonded Labour Act or Child Labour Act, adds Krishna. 

This year in February, Karimnagar district authorities rescued 24 bonded labourers from Odisha and registered a case against the brick kiln owner under the Bonded Labour Systems Act, 1976, Child Labour Act 1986 and SC & ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989. “There are some cases that come to our notice and appropriate action is taken,” explains L Chaturvedi, Joint Labour Commissioner of Telangana while speaking to The News Minute. However, he says he was not immediately aware how many cases have been booked against brick kiln owners in the previous year.

With the real estate boom, numbers of brick kilns have also gone up in the state. Telangana State has an official record of 791 brick kilns across the state with a labour force of 33,655 persons, according to Chaturvedi. “There are an equal number of unregistered brick kilns in the state taking the total to not less than 1400 to 1500 kilns,” says Krishna, estimating the number of workers in the kilns to be not less than 1.5 lakh. 

Brick kilns are spread across the eleven districts of Rangareddy, Sangareddy, Medchal Malkajgiri, Warangal, Karimnagar, Peddapally, Rajanna Sircilla, Nizamabad, Nalgonda, Khammam and Yadadri Bhuvangiri districts with over 80% workers hailing from drought prone poor districts of Bolangir, Nuapada and Kalahandi of Odisha.

Under the Inter-State Migrant Workmen (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Rules, 1982, the employers are mandated to register all the workers working on their sites. By not implementing this basic requirement under the Act, neither the Labour Department nor the government at any time knows how many migrant workers are in the industry. The local administrations look the other way when unregistered kilns are operating with impunity and holding workers in abject poverty and debt bondage.

The unfolding tragedy of migrant workers on the highways in India exposes the serious gaps in implementation of existing laws that result in further hardship for the workers. The central and state governments have declared that all workers have to be paid wages for the lockdown period. In instance after instance, it is clear that the contractors and middlemen have abandoned the workers without paying wages for even the work done before the lockdown.

Plight of brick kiln workers

In fact, the total suspension of public transport proved a boon for L Parsuram who owns the Jai Durga Bhawani brick kiln in Falsawadi Tanda of Sangareddy district, as it helped him to make the labour work beyond their scheduled departure of early May. “We had to suspend our work for about 15 days as material supply was hit by the lockdown,” says Parsuram. Last year he made 10 lakh bricks with a work force of 15 persons. This year he planned for 24 lakh with 25 persons but could manage only 13 lakh, Parsuram said.

“We would have ideally returned the next day of the Baisakh Purnima,” (the full moon day that fell on 7 May), says Tapeshwar Kuldeep licking his parched lips over and over again, as he stands along with the others under the shade of a lone neem tree. Tapeshwar had come with 27 adults and 5 children from his village Sunabeda in Nuapada district in November. But this time, each extended day has been a nightmare. The rains in between ruined the bricks, the wages for which will not be counted. 

Tapeshwar with his family
“We get a weekly Kharchi (spend money) against the numbers of bricks we make,” explains Tapeshwar. Making 1000 bricks fetches them Rs 80 to 90, less than a rupee a brick. The Rs 300 per week of support to purchase dry ration was reduced to Rs 50 during lockdown. “How do you expect us to survive?” asks Debraj, one of the 27 from the village. “Our children sleep hungry and we eat less food every day to save for tomorrow,” says Tapeshwar.  

Another group of kiln workers who arrived at Medchal highway had similar travails to narrate. When they approached the owner to make arrangements for their departure after completing their work, he refused to make arrangements, “Tumko jana ho to jao,” (If you want to go you may leave), he had declared when they asked him to send them back home now that the work was over.

“Hamare paas koi paise nahi, khane ko khana nahin, hum kaise jayenge?” (We have no money, no food to eat, how do we go?), says an agitated Pandit raising his voice and widening his eyes to mark his helplessness. So, they decided to walk and reached Medchal.

Insufficient trains and their mysterious departures

According to the Railways, out of the approved 1000 plus trains, until May 15, 974 trains have been operational since 1 May. A total number of 101 Shramik trains had reached Odisha until last week, out of which 16 were from Telangana. On 23 May, 12 trains left for Odisha from different stations in Telangana.

For reasons of over registration, the Telangana government decided to suspend registration within four days from May 8 at the police stations. No official statements were issued about this decision explaining reasons. The workers when they reached the police stations were sent back asking them to come back in a couple of days.

“It is bizarre why train schedules to different states or their departures are never shared,” says an exasperated Suneetha, a member with the “Advocacy Covid 19 Lockdown,” a voluntary group that came together during the pandemic to extend support and coordination for relief. “This is not funny anymore, but rather cruel,” adds Suneetha, reflecting on the anxious phone calls from migrant workers about departure of trains to their states. 

The information is ‘leaked’ a couple of hours before the departure. It was never clear to the workers why some would go and some left behind. “I too hold a movement pass, while my cousin brother from another area is boarding, we have not been taken,” says Valmiki when the train to Jharkhand left in early May. His visit to the thana to enquire was met with a policeman’s lathi. 

Voluntary efforts to ferry migrants

As no trains plied, voluntary organisations began pooling resources to help the migrant workers get on buses. “A total of 70 buses have been arranged so far by raising funds from individual, private groups and corporates,” informs Dr Srinivas Sajja, a volunteer who helped in facilitating 70 buses to transport interstate migrant workers. Eight of these were arranged to Odisha.

Private bus arranged to Odisha
Each bus came at an average cost of Rs. 1.2 lakh with a capacity to ferry 50 passengers, according to Dr Sajja. Apart from the eight buses to Odisha, four buses to Madhya Pradesh, six to Bihar, 12 each to Chhattisgarh and Uttar Pradesh and six to West Bengal have been organised so far, spending Rs 66 lakh on transport alone. This apart, voluntary organisations and members of “Advocacy Covid 19 Lockdown” have fed 10,000 to 13,000 migrants every day since mid-May at Medchal highway. The government joined in after the initial weeks to support the initiative by setting up tents, providing water, sanitiser, sanitary pads, etc, through its various departments.

Late evening on May 28, Tapeshwar calls to check if we knew of trains going to Odisha. Later that night Debraj calls to ask when the trains would start. It was 9.30 in the night and all the 27 members were waiting for their brick kiln owner to provide them with food. “The Rs 50 he gave was long over,” came a feeble tired voice. “Our children have all curled up to sleep hungry. How long can we bear this?” he asks, almost breaking down.

When the Chief Relief Commissioner, Pradeep Kumar Jena was contacted over telephone, he suggested we contact 139 (railway enquiry) to find out about the trains. Here in Telangana, the nodal officer for stranded persons, Sandeep Kumar Sultania’s number when tried was switched off. 

Malini Subramaniam is an independent journalist.

Padmaja Shaw is an academic and independent journalist.