A one-time debt takes generations to repay …

There are many bonded labourers in Kanpur who work at brick kilns. They take loans from contractors, but are not able to repay these loans, at times for generations. Sometimes these labourers repay the loan in a year but most of the times they are not able to ... this cycle of borrowing and repaying goes on ...

Neetu Singh
| Updated: February 28th, 2020

Chaubeypur (Kanpur)

If you have ever taken a loan of Rs 5,000-10,000 from someone, how long would you take to repay it? While the answer to this question may vary according to one’s income, Pheku from Gaya district in Bihar has lived under the shadow of debt for 30 years.

Pheku Majhi, 46, does not remember exactly how many rupees his family had taken as loan from the contractor 30 years ago. But he feels that when he was 15-16 years old, his family would have taken a loan of about Rs 5,000-10,000 from the contractor. Although the loan was repaid by him, he drew yet another loan from the contractor. Since then, Pheku has lived in the grip of this debt.

This is the story of the debt at large. Sometimes these labourers repay the loan in a year, sometimes they can’t and this cycle of borrowing and repaying the loan does not end for years.

Pheku Majhi, a bonded labourer, does not remember exactly how many rupees his family had taken as loan from the contractor 30 years ago

At present, there are 240 brick kilns in Kanpur and 50-100 families working for each. So, each kiln supports about 200-250 people working as labourers from different states like Bihar, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Assam, Uttar Pradesh-Madhya Pradesh (Bundelkhand). Out of these, 90% of the labourers belong to Musshar community of Bihar.

“I have been a bonded labourer for thirty years. I deeply regret the loan which I took from the contractor once as it is not easy for me now to get out of that debt. Wanting to end the loan sooner, I am forced to bring my children (12-15 years) to work,” said Pheku, adding, “The childhood of my children ends up in the smoke from these chimneys. Many a time, we even are forced to borrow Rs 10,000-12,000 upon our own children.”

When we spoke to several families on two-three brick kilns in Chaubeypur, we came to know that contractors give a loan of Rs 30,000-40,000 to a family. These loans are taken by these families when they go back to Bihar from June to October. Being landless, there is no work in the fields and they fail to get employment anywhere. In the meantime, they take this loan from the contractor to tide over the dry spell. Besides, they also have to borrow from the contractor if someone falls ill or has to marry off a girl.”

SP Shukla, additional Labour Commissioner, Kanpur division, informed Gaon Connection over the phone: “If we receive any such complaint, we take immediate action. We have the labourers released immediately and give them Rs 20,000. Thereafter, they are given an amount of about Rs 1 lakh for their rehabilitation.”

When we asked him whether he was aware of this particular bonded labour case, he said: “This matter is not in our cognizance. You ask the labourers to give us a written complaint, we will take action on it 100 per cent.”

Laxmikant Shukla has been working with these labourers for 20 years

Why don’t these labourers complain in writing to the Labour Department?

We spoke to Laxmikant Shukla who has been working with these labourers for 20 years, to find this out. He said: “These contractors are the powerful people of their area. The labourers are well aware of what will be done to them there if one of them gives a written complaint against the contractor. They will be beaten and kept locked in the house for 10 days. This is why they have been silent for years.”

When we sought Pheku’s story of his 30 years of debt, he shared the experience of the previous year. “Last year, I took a loan of Rs 40,000 from the contractor. I worked hard and repaid the entire debt last year, but the contractor is not willing to accept it. As per him, I still owe him Rs 27,000, so this time I was forced to work for him.”

“Had I protested, the contractor would have abused me physically as well as verbally. He simply denies having any record of my work for last year,” Pheku said.

We spoke on the phone to the contractor of Nawada district, Mitthu Yadav, to understand the role of the contractor in these debts. Mitthu said: “The bhatta (brick kiln) owners do not trust the labourers, so they don’t hire them directly. These owners know us, so it is through us that labourers are hired. I have been working this way for 5-6 years.”

What does he stand to gain from all this? Mitthu said: “This is not a matter to be declared in the open. This is my business and I am paid as per the number of people whom I supply.” When asked for how many years the bhatta owners have been hiring through him, Mitthu replied: “This has been happening from even before I was born. I don’t even know its history. Bihar does not have any work, so its one-third population is always out in search of work.”

When asked if the labourers borrow from him, he replied: “Who does not? You also would take it when you need it, we take it too so if they take it, what is the big deal.”

Being landless, there is no work in the fields and they fail to get employment anywhere

Can these workers go to work elsewhere? Mitthu informed, “They can go, but then, I cooperate with them and talk to them well. If someone needs to go home, I allow whereas other contractors do not do so.”

When asked about the difficulties faced by these labourers, Mitthu said: “They lead a carefree life. They do not aspire to be big people like Ambani, so they live in peace. Now, the labourers are no fools, everybody has become very sensible.”

Pheku hails from Dariyapur village, which is about 45 kms away from Gaya district headquarters, and just like Pheku, there are 30 other families from the Musshar community living on the Vibhu bhatta of Chaubeypur in Kanpur. All of them have loans from the contractor in Bihar, which has forced them into several years’ bonded labour. 

On the day of Makar Sankranti festival, when we arrived at a brick kiln in Chaubeypur in Kanpur, the colony of 30 families was engaged in its routine. Their hardships can be easily gauged by looking at them. That day, there was no smoke from the chimneys, the brick-shaping work was also stopped. It came to be known after talking to them that the work had been stalled for the last month due to rain.

“This time the work has been stopped throughout the month due to rains. Today, on the day of khichdi festival, I wish I knew how to arrange a treat of curd-chuda for my children,” Pheku Manjhi regrets looking wistfully at his kids who play in the dirt.

Such was the scene of a brick kiln in Kanpur, one of the largest cities in India and also the city where people still come for employment. Unable to arrange any festive food of dahi chivda for them, Pheku has three boys and a girl who work with his wife and him making bricks. 

Vijaya Ramachandran, 73, daughter of the eighth President of India R Venkatraman, has been working with these bhatta labourers for the past 30 years. She informed Gaon Connection over the phone: “They are not educated. They do not know their rights and so live enslaved to the contractor for years. Throughout the year, a kiln is in operation for only seven to eight months and for the rest of the time they move back to their villages. They are landless, so when they do not get work to run their expenses for four to five months, they are forced to take loans from the contractor.”

Pheku took us to the place where the bricks are made, with some people from his colony. Pointing to the wet soil, he said: “In a severe winter, one does not feel like touching this soil, but what else to do? Every day, the whole family works for 10-12 hours and then manages to make a thousand bricks. We are given Rs 550 for a thousand bricks whereas the contractor gets Rs 700-800 per thousand bricks from the kiln owner.”

Vijaya Ramachandran said: “There is neither pure drinking water nor toilet arrangement provided on the kilns. At the time when India aspires to be open defecation free, you will not be able to see a single toilet at any kiln.”

There are all sorts of perceptions among people about these labourers, a few believe that they do a lot of intoxication while some blame them for not working when they live in their village for four to five months. We spoke regarding this, to Mahesh Kumar, an RTI activist, who has spent a lot of time visiting these labourers in their villages.

These children are fed only potatoes and rice, affording cereals and pulses is out-of-the-budget for their parents

Sharing his 15 years of experience with these labourers, Mahesh explained: “These are landless labourers. There was a time when they fed upon rats in order to survive. They do not have a house, so most of the families live in slums in the land provided by the contractors. When they live in the village for four to five months, they continue to work in the contractors’ fields.”

Mahesh narrates an incident in Bihar witnessed by him. “Once someone died in this colony, so some people could not go to work with the contractor. The contractor came and berated and thrashed them a lot, in front of me, just because they did not go to work.”

As per Mahesh, the people of the Musshar community cannot work anywhere without the approval of their contractor. No one can take a loan and run away. It is the sole endeavour of the contractor to not let a debtor walk free ever again.

The agony of Ajit Majhi of Nawada district working on Chaubeypur bhatta is similar to that of Pheku Majhi. Ajit pointed to his hut and said: “You may go inside and see, even in such a winter, we have to manage with two thin blankets. At times, we have to wake up and burn wood to warm ourselves all night.”

Their tiny households comprise of two to four clothes, some utensils, a little rice in a sack, a small pile of potatoes at one corner, green chillies, and a little mustard oil in the bottle. 

Ajit said: “When the weather is bad, the brick-work remains closed. On such days, my wife and I get Rs 150 each to eat in a week. When the brick-work is on, we (husband and wife) get Rs 600 a week. The expenses of a family of five to six members are hardly met with a week’s wages.

These bonded labourers have to go back to work even when their children are barely a month-old

In a hut, a labourer was lying while his wife fed the children out in the sun. Sugi Devi, 35, said: “My husband has TB for several months. We are not able to get him any medicine. I do brick making alone. It is very difficult to feed the children.”

Standing at some distance, Kari Devi, 40, said: “We never go to the hospital with a minor health issue. Our children are barely a month-old when we resume making bricks, taking them along. How would we eat otherwise?”

A 15-year-old girl was combing her hair when I asked her in which class she was studying. She replied: “I don’t study, but make bricks and look after my younger brothers and sisters. I long to go to school, but I can’t.”

A woman standing there, Rukmani Devi, 30, said: “You talk about studies, we struggle even to fill our bellies. Every day we feed on potatoes and rice, sometimes we procure greens from nearby fields. It has been years since we ate dal, the greens are also hardly a two-day fare in a month.”