Morbi, Gujarat: Meet the men and women building the new India.
Chakubhai Khabhu, old and lean, smoking a thin, hand-rolled cigarette, stands on top of a pile of bricks his children have made with their hands. His daughter, Vanita, 20, tosses bricks to her brothers, two by two, in a seamless human chain. One of his sons' wives takes a break to breastfeed her 2-year-old near a pile of black clay.
For every thousand bricks, they earn a bit less than $5.50 (Rs 222). The family, with five adult labourers, pockets on average a little more than $2 a day.
This is the life behind the great Indian construction boom, propelled by an economy still growing at 9% a year. The lure of steady work is drawing more and more migrants like the Khabhus, who come to brickyards like this one around the country because they can no longer sustain themselves by farming.
The success of the brick business, in other words, is as much a portrait of a growing industry as it is a testament to the dismal state of the Indian peasantry.
Construction and its ancillary trades, most of them involving unorganized and unregulated jobs, employ 30 million people, according to the Planning Commission of India. That compares with roughly 2 million in, say, the software business.
With construction expanding, so, too, apparently is the demand for bricks. Chandu Bhalsod, president of an association of brick makers in Morbi, said his production had doubled in the last year alone, and would probably double again next year. The demand has grown so fast, Bhalsod said, that he is now facing a labor shortage. He said he planned to scout for workers this year in a hungry forest belt hundreds of miles away.
Much of that work is done by migrant labor families like the Khabhus, who trek from their home villages near and far to brickyards for eight months of the year, except during the monsoon season, when rains halt production.
The Khabhus said they gave up when seawater from the nearby Gulf of Kutch crept in and killed their fields. Since Vanita was a child, the family has roamed the country in search of work -- in construction and road-building, and finally, here to this brickyard.
The Khabhus' home, in a village about 30 miles west of here called Manomara, is locked up for the season. A thorny bundle of dead brush blocks their front door. It is a billboard announcing that they will be back only when the rains come and the brickyards close. Nearly half of the homes in Manomara's low-caste Dalit quarter are locked.
Of all the backbreaking work available to the poorest Indian peasant, making bricks offers some of the best earnings. It pays better than making salt, or working in the roof-tile factories. It can allow families to build a proper house, pay for a wedding or buy a goat or a television.
But the work is hazardous, especially at kilns like this one. Smoke spills out everywhere. Within minutes it chokes a novice hovering nearby. It is so laden with heavy soot that it blackens nearby mango blossoms, to say nothing of the lungs of the people like the Khabhus, who live and breathe bricks. Home is a small room made of bricks, on the edge of the kiln. They sleep on cots outside.
On most days, they work 14 hours, breaking for meals and sleep during the hottest part of the afternoon, when temperatures climb to more than 110 degrees Fahrenheit, and that is not counting the heat that rises from the kilns day and night.
At night, when the air is cool, work goes on under the glow of thin, white tube lights. Music screeches from cheap home stereos to keep the workers awake.
They mix clay and water by hand, mold the bricks by hand, stack them high between layers of coal, and when they are cooked, after a couple of weeks, load them onto trucks that ferry them to construction sites.
Brick-making work not much different from this has dominated construction in India since antiquity. Today it dominates the countryside. It is impossible to drive through any stretch of rural highway here without seeing -- and smelling -- brick kilns burning.
There are no reliable estimates on the number of brick makers in India. But the Energy and Resources Institute, a research organization in New Delhi, estimated that there were 100,000 brick kilns nationwide in 2000. That number has most certainly grown, considering what Ernst & Young estimates to be a 30% expansion in Indian real estate.
Brick making in India is also responsible for heavy amounts of pollution. The chimneyless kilns like the ones here are the least energy-efficient, consuming 200 tons of coal for every million bricks they produce. Small pilot projects are under way to develop bricks that require no baking, or that can be made with simple technologies to reduce emissions. But for now the ancient, inefficient kilns persist and proliferate.
Because it is piecework -- workers are paid by the number of bricks they make -- brick making attracts entire families. An extra pair of hands always helps, even if they belong to a child. At the brickyard in which the Khabhus work, the children's specialty is a task best suited for small, nimble hands. It is called "finishing" and it involves squatting by the raw bricks and dusting off extra lumps of clay with a straightedge.
Attempts have been made to wean children away from work. The American India Foundation, whose donors include many Indians in the US, finances schools in brickyards, as well as dormitories to encourage parents to allow their children to stay behind.
At this brickyard, school is a patch of ground in the shade of a tree, with a chalkboard and children sitting in two neat rows. Classes are held for three hours each morning. The children are back at work later.
Vanita Khabhu had once imagined a life beyond these kilns. She attended a three-week beautician training program. She learned how to wax arms and thread eyebrows, but that was hardly enough to enable her to find a job, and besides, her family needed her hands at the kilns.
She left school after the second grade and cannot read or write.
Her future, she knows, will be decided by the man she marries. If he and his family work in the kilns, she will join them. "For our people, this is the kind of work we do," she said.