Too ill to work, too poor to get better: how debt traps families working at India’s kilns

Last Updated: June 23, 2024By

Struggles at the Brick Kilns: A Tale of Hardship and Hope


Suma Devi describes her 16 years at the brick kilns near Mathura, Uttar Pradesh, as wearing her down. Originally from Bihar, over 500 miles away, she moved in search of work, leaving behind her village near Gaya. Six years ago, just after giving birth to her daughter, she was diagnosed with tuberculosis but couldn’t finish her treatment because she needed to find work at the Madhav brick kiln in Naujheel.


Her days start early, molding clay under the scorching sun, trying to shape enough bricks to earn a meager wage. “I’ve been feeling unwell for years now. No improvement,” she laments, taking breaks to cook for her family and tidy their makeshift brick hut.


The Daily Grind

From 8 am to 1 pm, she works to avoid the worst heat, then resumes after sunset, hoping to shape 2,000 bricks by 1 am, earning barely enough to survive. Despite her perseverance, debts loom large. Last year, they borrowed 80,000 rupees but still owe 30,000, forcing them to borrow more just to get by.


Caught in a Cycle

Devi, belonging to the marginalized Dalit community, feels trapped. “We have no choice but to do this work,” she sighs. Her struggle with TB persists, draining their finances on private clinic visits and medicines, further deepening their debt.


Systemic Challenges

These migrant women, including pregnant mothers, endure arduous journeys each year to toil in kilns where healthcare and benefits elude them. Public services are out of reach, and their status as workers isn’t formally recognized, denying them rights like maternity leave.


Health and Desperation

Lack of documents like Aadhaar cards blocks access to essential entitlements. Without them, they can’t even open bank accounts for government benefits, deepening their plight. Children suffer too, working alongside their parents, undernourished and neglected.


A Glimmer of Hope

Amidst these challenges, small efforts like health camps organized by charities offer brief relief. Here, basic check-ups become lifelines for underweight women and malnourished babies, like Heera Devi’s son Kartik, who struggles to thrive amidst dire circumstances.

A Call for Change

The struggle is stark, the challenges immense, yet amidst the toil and hardship, there’s resilience and hope for a better future. These women, unseen and unheard, continue their quiet battle for dignity and survival.

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