31 Jan - 6 Feb 2014 #692

Building blocks

The invisible men, women, and children who lay the foundations of your dream home
Jan Møller Hansen

Beyond Bhaktapur’s golden rice terraces and charming palace square, lies a world of soot and grime. The capital’s insatiable hunger for high rises and homes coupled with the lack of livelihood and employment opportunities, mean that hundreds of families from rural Nepal and Bihar migrate to factories here during the dry season to make bricks. In Kathmandu Valley, alone there are around 110 brick kilns employing thousands, including more than 10,000 children.

Jan Møller Hansen

For six months a year, the labourers toil from early morning to late evening digging and kneading soil, manually moulding bricks, drying them, and finally stacking them in the kiln. With little to no protection against the suffocatig conditions, they remain completely exposed to fumes and dust.

The families live next to the factories in small huts made of sun-dried bricks. The younger children are left to care for themselves, while the older ones help out their parents in the kilns. Having left school in their home districts, most children are not getting an education. Instead, they are ‘training’ to follow in the footsteps of their elders.

Shoddy housing and the lack of basic health, water, sanitation, and school facilities make the poor families among the most vulnerable communities in the Valley. Even though the earnings are not as low as one might think – a labourer can earn upto Rs 70,000 in the season – the human costs are high.


Smoky business

Until July 2013, brick-making was one of few businesses in Nepal where owners didn’t have to pay any tax on their profits. All that changed with the new fiscal year and now Kathmandu’s 110 operating brick kilns (see map) will have to pay a Value Added Tax. But at a time when most factories still operate without licences, let alone VAT registration, kiln owners say the effectiveness of this new law is highly questionable.

BIKRAM RAI

“Traditionally, brick kilns do not have a history of keeping records either with the government or their own employees. So asking us owners to make bills for every transaction is a huge challenge,” admits Mahendra Bahadur Chitrakar, president of the Federation of Nepali Brick Industries. “Besides, we have a hard time explaining to customers why they have to pay tax-inflated prices to build their homes.”

There are more than 800 brick kilns across Nepal and Chitrakar says some factory owners outside Kathmandu are already trying to arm-twist their way out of making the change. But shelling out extra cash to the state is not their only concern. As Kathmandu Valley expands outwards, the mines are emptying out quickly and brick kiln owners now have to compete for real estate with those wanting to build homes.

Furthermore, as people become more aware of the health risks of having fume guzzling chimneys right at their doorsteps, they are increasing pressure on factories to cut down on pollution. Bhaktapur Itta Tatha Tile Udyog (BITTU) in Jagati, the largest brickmaker in the Valley which produces up to 15 million units in a season, is drawing a lot of flak from homeowners on adjacent plots, about the dust that trucks cough up while transporting raw material from the mines to the factory. BITTU is currently surviving because it operates on government land and the lease was recently extended for 10 years.

“New and improved technology is available to curb pollution, but everyone wants China brick houses,” explains Chtirakar. “Within a decade, all the kilns might move out of the capital, not for environmental reasons but because of a lack of space.”

With construction boom in the country at its peak, the brick industry finds itself grappling, often unsuccessfully, with issues like illegal operation, lack of safety and environmental regulations, and child labour. Homraj Acharya of Global Fairness Initiative (GFI) is among a small group of organisations trying to improve manufacturing standards and leading the movement towards ‘cleaner’ bricks.

VIGGO BRUN/FIRED EARTH
CITY LIMITS: Brick kilns are currently located at the edge of Kathmandu’s sprawl, but will eventually be pushed into the corners or outside the Valley itself.

“The idea is to appeal to a high value market and for this to happen, factory owners must eliminate illegal labour, reduce pollution, and provide better care for their workers,” says Acharya.

Currently, around 65,000 underage children live in factory premises during the dry season. They accompany their families from the villages, who work for minimum pay, and help their parents in whatever way they can. GFI recently started a pilot program through which it hopes to eradicate unsound practices within the brick industry and then classify the factories into green, orange, and red categories so that buyers are aware of what has gone into making their bricks. One of the participants, Mangal Maharjan, who runs Itta Bhatta in Lalitpur, says the brick industry must look at its long-term future rather than just temporary interests.

“If I produce high-quality bricks, I am sure there will be people who will buy it even at a higher price,” says Maharjan.

Sunir Pandey

Read also:

Beasts of burden

Earth, fire, air

Back to black

Blood bricks

Green bricks

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