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A future in bricks

DEC 21 -

A month ago, when one of his colleagues happened to suggest joining a brick kiln as a labourer, Nabin Bhujel barely hesitated before deciding to take it up.

Burdened with having to support his family back home in Sindhuli, it was an easy choice for 14-year-old Nabin; he had been looking for a better-paying alternative to the Koteshwor-based doughnut factory he had been working at for the last four years. For the young boy, the brick kiln would offer a significant earning boost to the meagre Rs 3,000 he was given at the factory per month—an offer he just couldn’t refuse under the circumstances.

So it was that the Ganga Jamuna brick kiln in Nangkhel, Bhaktapur, became Nabin’s home for the coming winter. Putting his factory job behind him, he joined the kiln some three weeks ago with Pradip, an old friend from the same village in Sindhuli. The two boys currently live in a little hut made of unbaked bricks, a shaky tin-roofed structure where winter nights are especially difficult to pass given the moisture that seeps in from the outside, rendering it unbearably cold.

“He simply doesn’t earn enough,” Bhujel says, referring to his father, a farmer, who lives with Bhujel’s mother and five-year-old sister at home. “As the son, it’s up to me to do what I can.” Currently he makes between 1,000 and 1,200 bricks a day, and gets paid approximately Rs 600 per 1,000 bricks—the going rate in Bhaktapur—and he seems happy enough with that. When asked about school, Bhujel shrugs—education is a distant thought, making enough money to support himself in the city, and sending what he can save to his family, is his top priority at the moment. “I can’t read,” he says matter-of-factly. “All I can do is write my own name in Nepali. That’s it.”

Bhujel hopes to go home at the end of winter with whatever he will have earned by then. “I’ll probably be back next season, though,” he says, picking at his teeth with untrimmed nails stained with mud. “I’ve made a lot of friends here.”

*******

When Ramsaran Khatri’s mother, who suffered mental problems, committed suicide four years ago in their home in Ramechhap, his two brothers left for the Capital to find work. Ramsaran was initially sent to school, but when his father began hitting the bottle hard and wasting a lot of the family’s precious resources, he had dropped out of school, leaving sixth grade behind.

“I didn’t have anything to do there,” the 12-year-old says. “So our neighbour, Shankar Nepali, offered to take me to Kathmandu.”

This was how Ramsaran ended up at the Ganga Jamuna kiln some two weeks ago. While his neighbour and wife make bricks, he helps them out in whatever way he can, and has been promised a share of the profits Shankar will earn by the end of the season. Still a beginner at the actual producing of the bricks though, Ramsaran can’t make more than 100 to 150 a day. “I just need to practice, is all,” he says.

*******

According to data compiled by the Department of Cottage and Small Industries, there are altogether 110 brick kilns in the Valley. Out of them, Bhaktapur has the most—64 kilns—while Kathmandu and Lalitpur have 28 and 18 kilns respectively. Some 450 to 600 workers are employed in each, where they work up to 18 hours daily.

Beginning mid-November every year, labourers from Kavre, Ramechhap, Sarlahi, Rolpa, Rukum and Nepalgunj, among other regions around the country, migrate to the Capital to take up jobs at kilns, and many comprise of youngsters like Nabin and Ramsaran looking for a way to up their incomes. Brick production normally continues until mid-April and the factory remains shut for another six months, during which workers usually return home.

Education, however, becomes one of the foremost concerns when it comes to cases of young labourers. But it isn’t enough for schooling facilities to be made available when the children themselves do not wish to make use of them. For instance, although there are government schools around brick kilns that run seasonal classes for children in the families of those coming to work in the kilns for six months, those like Nabin and Ramsaran, among hundreds of others, are reluctant to join.

The Bhaktapur District Administration Office, according to chief district officer Ek Mani Nepal, is working at declaring Bhaktapur a child labour-free zone. An encouraging sign, he says, is the fact that of late, even the owners of brick kilns have been persuaded in this direction.

Rajaram Kasula, owner of the Ganga-Jamuna brick kiln, says proprietors are already beginning to discourage parents from bringing their children to work. “If the parents are accompanied by children, it is mandatory that they be sent to school,” he says. “But we’re not liable if the kids are helping out in their free time.”

Change, however, has been slow to come, and young labourers in kilns have not receded in number. “It takes time for consciousness regarding such issues to expand effectively,” says Nepal. “It’s even more difficult when the kids themselves are so resistant. Hopefully, we’ll be able to reach out to them at some point.”

Posted on: 2012-12-22 09:33


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