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Updated: June 19, 2013 00:41 IST

Building blocks of servitude

Vamsi Vakulabharanam
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The real estate boom in India rides on the underpaid labour of brick kiln workers from whom every ounce of effort is mercilessly extracted with no respect for the law

Urban growth has been central to the remarkable growth rates that we have achieved over the last three decades. Especially since the 1990s, when structural adjustment policies were introduced, markets and private capitalist ventures have significantly driven our urban growth process. However, unlike what is taught in economics textbooks, markets have neither been free in a classical sense, nor welfare-enhancing for all. Focussing on any aspect of the urban growth process would bring out these pathologies, not merely in the urban sector but in the larger growth model. Since construction and real estate have been a crucial component of urban growth, an analysis of one of the building blocks (brick kilns) of this sector in and around Hyderabad city throws light on several of these issues.

Seasonal migrants

Open brick kilns are located in and around the outer boundaries of the rapidly growing city of Hyderabad. These kilns employ lakhs of people, mostly seasonal migrants, who travel long distances from across the country, to live and work in extremely trying conditions. In particular, more than two lakh workers travel from western Odisha districts (mainly Koraput, Bolangir and Kalahandi) to Hyderabad typically in the pre-summer and summer months of the year, in pursuit of a livelihood.

Typically, most of the workers are from the Scheduled Tribe communities or more broadly from Dalit communities, who are landless workers, tenants or cultivators, working on meagre amounts of land back in Odisha. One of the pathologies of the Indian growth process is the widespread and uneven outbreak of agrarian distress across the country wherein the majority of our workforce still depends on agriculture, which is not remunerative and, therefore, does not suffice in providing sustainable livelihoods to all those dependent on it.

This creates the phenomenon of distress-induced out migration that is seasonal or sometimes more long-term. In this case, some of the seasonal kiln-worker migrants from Odisha work in their small plots of land during the rainy season. They usually grow one crop (e.g. paddy) that does not sustain them throughout the year. Given the inadequacy of institutional credit, they live precariously, caught in inter-linked markets (credit-product or land-credit markets). These interlinked markets, as most economists know, do not function like free competitive markets but endow the market intermediaries with a lot of market power. If there are consumption shocks (e.g. marriage or death of a family member) or production shocks (like tubewell investment or crop failure) for these farmers, the situation gets further compounded and the families get locked in long-term relations of indebtedness. The fear of being trapped in debt with all its ramifications then pushes them out to seek work elsewhere, typically in some sector (such as brick kilns) of the rapidly growing urban India.

The kiln workers get a lump-sum payment at the beginning of their migration to the south, of an amount of around Rs. 12,000. They are also supposed to be provided weekly allowances at the destination in Hyderabad as their living stipend. There is a team in Odisha of Sardars or labour contractors, who handle the recruitment and the initial advance payments to workers, and then travel with them to Hyderabad. The Sardars act on behalf of kiln-owners, who largely hail from the Coastal Andhra region. Having taken the advance, and having moved to a foreign location, the workers are largely captive and forced to act as bonded labour during the contract period. The implications are many.

Appalling conditions

First, workers are forced to work extremely long and irregular hours at the kilns (sometimes, 4 a.m. to 11 p.m with a half-hour lunch break). Second, the conditions of work are quite hazardous and affect their long-term health. Third, their living conditions are quite appalling, as they are forced to house themselves right next to the kilns. Fourth, child labour is rampant as the workers bring their families along when they migrate. Fifth, women constantly undergo sexual harassment at the hands of the Sardars and owners. It is a journey from one set of unfree markets at the source to another set of unfree markets that borders on slavery at the destination during the contract period.

In terms of remuneration at the destination, there are major violations in paying the prescribed minimum wages of the Andhra Pradesh state. In several of the kilns, in terms of the consolidated amount that is paid to the brick moulders for the piece-work they perform, the actual wages (about Rs. 150-200 per 1000 bricks) are roughly half of the prescribed minimum wages (Rs. 376 per 1000 bricks). The situation is no different for brick loaders. At the same time, while the actual cost of making bricks is around 50 paise, it is sold in the market for about Rs. 2.50. The profit margins are in the range of 400-500 per cent, making it an extremely lucrative venture for capital. Of course, some of the margin goes into supporting the Sardars, the local police, State officials, so that this highly exploitative process can go on relentlessly. The real estate boom and the rapid urban construction growth in India over the last two or three decades ride on these emaciated workers from whom the last ounce of effort is extracted without mercy or any respect for the law. This also throws light on the rapidly escalating inequalities in the country since the 1990s.

In terms of the impact of the brick kiln industry on local villages, there is a major diversion of agricultural land for the production of bricks. This land cannot be used for cultivation for a few years after that. Local farmers who lease out the land benefit from the rents. Local merchants benefit greatly with the influx of migrant populations for a few months. Otherwise, there is very little employment generated for the local workers of these villages.

The challenges

There has been a spirited effort to organise the migrant kiln workers by some university students, interested academics, NGOs, and some trade unions, who have formed a solidarity committee for them. It is extremely difficult to organise the workers because of the nexus between the state, owners and contractors, the indifference of well-meaning liberal middle classes to the processes that are building their dreams and prosperity, the vulnerability of workers at an unfamiliar workplace in Hyderabad, their vulnerability in the power equations that work in Odisha, the general difficulty of organising workers in the unorganised sector, the language barriers between the organisers and workers, and the dire threats issued to the organisers by owner-sponsored mafias.

However, such mobilisation efforts need support from all quarters (especially all labour unions) to question both the unfreedom that gets promoted in the name of free markets, and the exploitative processes through which a minority becomes prosperous in our society. These efforts have to be undertaken in conjunction with questioning the already crisis-prone neoliberal growth process in India and across the globe that has tended to see a proliferation of urban informal sector jobs with low wages and poor working conditions, while creating very little employment in the organised sector. We have to lay the foundations for a better growth model not by stimulating the ‘animal spirit’ of domestic and foreign investors as our Prime Minister has often said, but by building a better economy for the majority through the creation of equitable institutions, and through the progressive redistribution of gains from growth.

(Vamsi Vakulabharanam teaches at School of Economics, University of Hyderabad)

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More In: Lead | Opinion

This is not peculiar to Andhra Pradesh but also common all over India.workers are being exploited as there is no one who can put their demand on national level.Government should come with proper legislation in favour of unorganized sector worker with adequate safeguards.

from:  Hasan
Posted on: Jun 20, 2013 at 12:34 IST

This is the grim scenario of a country who boasts of becoming a
developed country in few decades,who demands the role of a permanent
member of security council.The country whose political,administrative
and civil society can't make conditions worth living for its poorest
of the poor who have been oppressed for centuries whose children have
never visited the childhood deserves no right to demand such claims.It
should stop building castles in the air.

Really,this is all about will.If the same country can make
technological and economic advancements by leaps and bounds,then it
can also solve such social malaises.The problem is not that we are not
knowing its prevalence but we are not interested in finding a solution
to it.

Innumerable people have worked and are working in such non human
conditions,the chains of slavery are yet to be broken.But the apathy
of the administration and the political leaders is simply
disgusting.No one knows when they will see the sunrise in their lives.

from:  mohit kumar
Posted on: Jun 20, 2013 at 09:36 IST

Dear Indians

This is why we need modern buildings and skyscrapers.

The kids need to be in school.

We need to enskill these people so they make much more money, either
in India or Abroad.

Lets draft all military age indians into the Armed Forces and feed,
educate and train them.

They will get free education, food, housing and healthcare.

Anyone who gets in the way, lets make them pay dearly.

from:  Mahesh Kuthuru
Posted on: Jun 20, 2013 at 00:05 IST

My Dear Indians

What a horrible country we have become?

It is a curse to be born in India?

Let us change this now!

Let us make India disease free by 2015.
<

from:  Mahesh Kuthuru
Posted on: Jun 20, 2013 at 00:02 IST

The author has rightly pointed out the atrocities committed to poor and
dejected people and stripping away their right to live in dignity by the
people in power with the sole motive of amassing money .These people as
they are said to be mostly migratory people , do not posses adult
franchise and hence are of no concern for any union or politicians and
hence are subjugated .

from:  Arun
Posted on: Jun 19, 2013 at 23:22 IST

Finally Hindu published an article on the plight of the voiceless, powerless migrant workers at the bottom of the brick (food) chain performing back & heart breaking work under the merciless Indian summer with their bodies as solar panels all for an indentured life.
Who is looking out for these AAM AADMIS. It is business as usual in India like in Banana Republics.

from:  Neela K R
Posted on: Jun 19, 2013 at 22:16 IST

Another industry where exploitation is terrible is agarbathi (incense
sticks) rolling. Females at home in villages and towns roll the
agarbathi; combined effort of mothers and daughters of all ages. One
advantage is do they never go out of their area where they live. The
raw materials are supplied in vans to their villages and the finished
product is collected and the weekly wages disbursed. For rolling a
bundle of 1000 sticks they are paid around Rs.20/- and when consumers
buy a finished product at a shop, a packet with less than twenty five
sticks is sold for Rs.10/- (the lowest possible price everywhere).
Please calculate the margin at all levels. The women are afflicted
with skin allergies, chest congestion, ulcers of the stomach due to
constant exposure to the different chemical powders they handle.

from:  chandrasekaran
Posted on: Jun 19, 2013 at 20:58 IST

This is exactly the type of work expected from Hindu. It is a great
example of socially responsible journalism. I pray that this great
institution remains free all the time from destabilizing external
influences.

from:  Arun
Posted on: Jun 19, 2013 at 17:24 IST

The pathetic conditions of migrant labour projected in the article
are not merely confined to real estate sector(Brick kilns) but extends
to almost each and every sector today.Though "child labour" is banned
under the law there are many "contract brokers" who bring children
from North to work in Southern metropolises behaving heinously without
valuing, neither their childhood nor their individuality.
The internal migration in our country is on the rise especially after LPG
reforms and the woes faced by these migrants are innumerable and the
government should seriously consider the issue or else at some point
of time this "Intra-Nation" migration will become a "hard nut" to
crack, making it a core issue in elections.

from:  HAVISH MADDURI
Posted on: Jun 19, 2013 at 17:04 IST

Sir,
It is good to see such articles highlighting the plight of the migrant
workers appear in a mainstream newspaper.I am reminded of a similar
report that appeared in the Frontline magazine about the travails of
unmarried young women employed in the textile mills of Tirupur.

Such blatant violation of human rights cannot happen without official
connivance. If the authorities want they can ensure that the workers
are treated fairly. For instance, thousands of migrants are employed
in Kerala's real estate sector. Their condition is relatively better
thanks to the state's political activism and culture of social
welfare.

from:  V N MUKUNDARAJAN
Posted on: Jun 19, 2013 at 16:24 IST

This is a well written write up all appreciations to the author.There is
large mass migration happens from Mahboob nagar district of Telangana
region of AP( there are many other districts too which fall in this
genre) but their plight will be the same out side the state.It is worth
exploring exposing and breaking.

from:  vageeshan
Posted on: Jun 19, 2013 at 14:45 IST

The brick kiln industry is today growing on a faster scale and contributing to the development of infrastructure growth in India. The sector today employing thousands of men, women and children to produce bricks worth of billions. Quality newspapers in France and Germany reported on the kiln industry in India. According to these reports each labour unit consists of two adults and a child often recruited by the labour contractor to work in the brick kilns located in various parts of India. There are large numbers of children who accompany their parents to provide a helping hand, baby sitter, cooking and working in the brick kiln like adult labourer.
Since brick kiln are often located far off city outskirts , the enforcement agency and government machinery´s are unable to prevent children working in the brick kiln. There are also instances where children as part of their family labour work with their own labour unit as unpaid worker. Work such as flipping of bricks for sun dying, making mud dough, mixing of oil, head loading of bricks and staking are generally performed by children along with the adult labourers.
In India the employment conditions and rights of migrant workers are THERETICALLY PROTECTED AND REGULATED, both as part of the general workforce and in recognition of their special characteristics as migrants. When it comes to regulate children´s engagement in hazardous work, the implementation of all the child friendly laws are IN QUESTION.
The state is always on the denial and minimalistic approach of welfare and development for the poor and disadvantaged people. Today scores of children in India are joining the informal labour force engaged in a wide range of sectors. I doubt deeply that these inhuman conditions will ever be eradicated in India.

from:  kurt waschnig
Posted on: Jun 19, 2013 at 13:12 IST

Agreed totally with the author

from:  Pankaj
Posted on: Jun 19, 2013 at 12:37 IST

The author deserves all round appreciation for penning down this incident of ruthlessness of the so-called 'invisible hands'. The Hindu
has also done an equally responsible job by publishing this great
work.The model of 'market fundamentalism' that India has blindly
followed since 1991 has scripted numerous sad stories of mass deprivation, artificial scarcities of essential services and goods,
increasing marginalisation of the poor,and has promoted stealth
exploitation of national resources by corporates. In fact, such a
model is unsuitable of our country. Rather, a model based on village
cooperative must be promoted to protecting interests of majority of
people. The corporate elites are capable enough to take care of
themselves anywhere on the globe.Why should they be subsidised at the
cost of public welfare and human development? People are
sovereign;their aspirations must be fulfilled by better governance.

from:  Bir Singh
Posted on: Jun 19, 2013 at 11:52 IST

This article touches upon various malaises prevalent in the contemporary Indian economy.These peasants turned seasonal workers who come under usually-poor category have to suffer at the hands of greedy capitalists who reap the benefits of rampant corruption and ignorance of the former vulnerable lots. Even though right against exploitation is a fundamental right,its very trying to enjoy it at the ground level.

from:  raj kamal vatsa
Posted on: Jun 19, 2013 at 11:09 IST

A well written article on the neglected informal sector (brick kiln
workers). Yes, it is real challenge to organize these workers.

from:  Phanindra G
Posted on: Jun 19, 2013 at 09:35 IST

Thanks for The Hindu for publishing this case study. A focus oriented article from the Author.
Bonded Labour as pointed by author is indeed everywhere. Several instances such as municipal workers, garbage workers, Industry workers of manufacturing, packaging, distribution .. This phenomenon is not just limited to Hyderabad, it is found across the country. There are too many parties, who profit from the present working culture. A byproduct of ever increasing crony capitalism and conservatism, this should be controlled immediately.
Rightly phrased "No respect of law". Right against Exploitation embeded in Article 23,24 of constitution is brushed aside and neglected as evident from the prevalent Graft culture of law enforcement authorites and the fact that local politicians who owns several small business houses in their locality are its direct beneficiaries.
The Author rightly pointed out the voilations of prescribed minimum wages condition which should be on hourly instead daily basis

from:  Mysura
Posted on: Jun 19, 2013 at 08:11 IST

This is not all about kiln worker but in other sectors also.Due to
increasing inflation and competition among different vendors profit
margin is being reduced.To maintain that margin vendors are not
willing to increase labourer cost.SO, labourer is also not left with any
option and to survive they are bond to accept this low
remuneration.Though with the help of NAREGA government tried to make a
standard and due to corruption it is also being fail.Labourer class is
being exploited here also.Government should intervene in this matter.
A standard should be made and laws should be implemented more
strictly.

from:  Divesh M
Posted on: Jun 19, 2013 at 06:46 IST

Every industry shall be forced in some way to make 'open book approach' for costing, pricing and profiting. This is practically possible and was applied to some mega projects in southern India, sans profiting.

from:  kharat
Posted on: Jun 19, 2013 at 05:41 IST

What you say should make us ashamed, no doubt. However, it's also well
known that most domestic workers in India are paid a pittance, treated
like slaves and we the people who employ them live off their hard
work. We refuse to pass a law that guarantees them a minimum wage, a
minimum set of paid vacation days, something equivalent of a pension
plan or medical benefits. In fact as a nation we refuse to accept that
domestic work is like any other employment, bound by the employment
act. Yet while they sweat it out cleaning our dirty dishes, mopping
our house, ironing our clothes, & making food, we sit on our cushy
couches watching TV gobbling the choicest sweets or preach about
leading a 'virtuous' life, and equality etc. So if we look in the
mirror and accept this is what happens everyday in our homes across
the nation, why should it be any surprise that our own house is built
on shaky grounds, on the backs of the neglected brick makers and brick
layers?

from:  sriram
Posted on: Jun 19, 2013 at 02:09 IST
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