The Rebel Road…

I know you’ve come to kill me. Shoot, coward, you’re only going to kill a man. – Ernesto Che Guevara

And hope just fades away…

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The brick kiln sector of Pakistan is, by far, one of the most backward, ill-managed and ill-regulated sectors of commodity production in existence. The basic process of making a brick, literally the building block of modern civilization, has not evolved over the last thousands of years. Similarly, the consciousness of brick kiln workers chained to this archaic process of production has remained unchanged and primitive by modern standards. According to recent reports, there are several hundreds of thousands of bonded labourers in Pakistan today. Issues related to the plight of this group, however, find their way into public notice only in dribs and drabs.

The reality that a brick kiln worker finds himself confronting is both stifling and horrific. The kiln owners provide the workers with all raw materials, i.e. water, clay and straw, and buy the ready-to-bake bricks from the workers in lots of a thousand bricks. The official rate that has been settled recently through legislation is 290 rupees per 1000 bricks. However, workers are lucky if they receive even 180 rupees for a lot. Workers, typically, produce a thousand bricks in a day and a half – that too with the assistance of their entire family. A worker is only allowed to work on the kiln if he, initially, takes a sum of money (determined by the worker himself), as debt (Peshgi), from the kiln owner. Interest charged upon this sum, coupled with continuing need of debt-money, ensures that the worker will never crawl out from under the yoke of the kiln owners. In addition, a hundred rupees or so are cut from each 1000-brick payment as an instalment in repayment of the debt. In effect the workers are only left with 60-100 rupees per 1000 bricks to feed their entire families. The workers are not allowed to leave the premises of the kiln, which is constantly patrolled by armed guards, without prior permission of the kiln owners. The local shops, again owned by the kiln owners, sell all commodities at relatively higher rates just to reinforce the economic compulsion for more debt. It is commonplace to hear of cases of the kiln owners or their cronies raping kiln worker women or burning alive recalcitrant male workers in the kilns to maintain their reign of terror. Furthermore, the fact that an unimaginable number of workers are in fact children, and that nearly 70 percent of the entire workforce is Christian, adds more fuel to the fire.

The Pakistan government, with great reluctance, has taken some steps to relieve the misery of these workers. In 1988 a Supreme Court decision decreed that brick kiln work was bonded labour, which was illegal and unconstitutional. In 1992 the Bonded Labour Abolition Act was passed, which advocated the setting up of vigilance committees at the district level to help relieve the plight of the bonded labourers. In 1995, a further refinement of the 1992 Act was carried out in relation to the constitution of these vigilance committees. However, the creation of these laws has not been translated into practical application. A corrupt police system, a hitherto numb judiciary and the presence of the kiln owners’ interests in Parliament has made the solution to this whole issue especially vexing. The most pertinent question today is how many more lives are we ready to commit to the fires of the kiln before we realize the gross injustice of it all?

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