Surprising truths from West Bengal’s brickyards

05 April 2019

India is the second-largest producer of bricks in the world, after China. There are about 140,000 brick kilns scattered across India and the industry is surging, albeit somewhat haphazardly, in step with India’s phenomenal economic growth and urbanisation.

As photographers, our clients are drawn to the kilns by the photography opportunities of course: India being India, the brickyards are labour-intensive rather than mechanised — which means an opportunity to witness, understand and photograph a human-interest narrative almost completely lost to machines in other parts of the world. As brick kiln connoisseurs 😃 we find our favourite ones in West Bengal. Here, under the blazing Indian sun, a fascinating human-interest story plays out for the cameras and for anyone interested in the socio-economic drivers that push people out of familial, largely agricultural village lifestyles to work amongst strangers in dusty brick-fields hundreds of miles away.

The work is obviously gruelling, back-breaking and often dangerous, especially under the blazing Bengal sun. A normal working day is 8½ hours, just 30 minutes of that being a rest break. The week is 6 days on, one day off. The pay seems pitiful given the strenuous demands of the work: somewhere around US$100 a month, on average, is the State’s official minimum wage for West Bengal’s brickyards — less if the workers take advantage of the factory’s very basic on-site accommodation.

Many of the kilns are unregistered and illegal, which can mean that little children get drawn into the relentless pressure to make, mould, bake or carry to contribute to the 1,000-brick targets that form the basis of the family’s piece-rate pay. Even in brickyards where child labour laws are respected, schooling is nearly non-existent: the kids simply play where they can while parents get on with the heavy lifting.

So what drives tens of thousands of workers to the brick fields? Certainly, poverty and lack of opportunity at home is a big part of it. But when you put down your camera for a while and take the trouble to engage with the backstories behind these hard-working people, another surprising explanation often emerges: the money may well be the least of it. In many cases, it’s about getting away from parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles, from the parochial restrictions of small-village life, caste traditions and village-elder diktats, from arranged marriages and outdated customs, or — surprisingly often — as an escape from failed relationships or the consummation of an otherwise banned romance. Here, incongruously, in these sweaty, dangerous and near-inhuman working conditions, migrants from the villages willingly come to take their first steps towards personal independence and freedom.

Travelshooters has unprecedented access and experience in the brick kilns of West Bengal. So whether you’re looking simply for great images, insightful backstories or intriguing human-interest portraiture, ask us to plan a day or two in for you into your India photography tour.

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