The goal: Help India's poorest of the poor brickmakers
Irish nonprofit GOAL teaches seasonal brickmakers in Kolkata to read and do math, a crucial step toward self-sufficiency.
On the outskirts of India's third-largest city, 5,000 partly blackened chimneys stand 100 feet high, belching smoke into the sky over millions of reddened bricks below. Some of the bricks are stacked neatly into huge square-cornered stacks, and still more, innumerable, are piled roughly – some broken, some chipped and cracked, as if tipped wantonly from a wheelbarrow.Skip to next paragraph
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Here around 1.25 million low-caste migrant workers and their dependents spend six months each year dredging clay from nearby lakes or molding bricks under the scorching sun, or lugging back-breaking hods. It is seasonal work, done by India's lowest castes, or in some cases, dirt-poor immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh.
Weather-beaten Ram Dayal, whose home is in Gazpar in Uttar Pradesh, a 24-hour train ride away, says has worked these kilns for 25 years. Asked his age, he laughs and says he doesn't know exactly. “I have a son about your age though,” he tells me.
He's getting ready to go home – “in two or three days” – as the monsoon season approaches, rains that make brick-baking impossible. For now, however, he spends 12 hours a day fueling and stoking a huge kiln, baking around 400,000 bricks at a time. “We are paid 4,700 rupees [$84] a month,” he says.
The soft, wet bricks are stacked in a basketball court-sized area around the stack. With venting space between the wet bricks, they are covered in a layer of stone and baked for two weeks. Keeping the fires lit, Ram Dayal and Murai Rajbal share two, six-hour shifts over each 24-hour period. In between, they mostly sleep in a nearby shack, which, astonishingly, sits right on top of the baking mass of bricks and a short stone's throw from the chimney stack behind.
The afternoon shift from 12 noon to 6 p.m. is the worst, with daytime temperatures nearing 40 C (104 F.) and relative humidity between 70 and 80 percent. That's before you factor in the heat from the vast kiln, though.
“You get used to it,” shrugs Murai Rajbal, his hands black from soot and brow laced with smoke-darkened sweat. He guesses his own age to be “around 41 or 42.” With “only 12 years working here,” he's a relative newcomer compared with Ram Dayal.
The migrants and their children often have little or no formal schooling, and, given that most of the workers – except those working the fires– are paid according to how many bricks they make or can carry, being able to count is key to ensuring a fair day's pay.