“ There is nothing new in world except the history you do not know.” – Harry Truman

Salman highlights the plight of families with no escape to a brighter future

(Mr. Salman Nizami, 25, was born in Banihal tehsil of District Ramban. He completed his graduate degree in mass communication and journalism, and joined journalism in 2004. He began his professional life at The OUTLOOK magazine as a columnist, and then started writing for Greater Kashmir, Kashmir Times, Times of India, The Hindu, Asian Age, Statesman, Rising Kashmir , JK Reporter. Mr. Nizami later joined SAHARA television in New Delhi as Desk Editor, and rose to the position of Group Editor of The Rastriya Sahara. He is currently working as a Editor-in-Chief of The Revolution newspaper published from Jammu and Kashmir, Sahara television as Desk Editor and Resident Editor of MID-DAY covering Upper North India including J&K. He is also active with UNICEF India and the Hungary World (NGO) as Media advisor. In that role, he has travelled widely investigating on new developments in the media industry, taking a special interest in child problems including labour, marriage, poverty, education, etc. He is one of the first journalists to research and write extensively about the child growth in Jammu and Kashmir.)

The Modern Day Slaves

The man and his four sons squatting in the dirt, mechanically kneading mud, and making line after line of dull gray bricks. It all is done under the vigilant gaze of the boss. “See, there’s a sad story,” the boss said as he pointed to the eldest son, 18. “The young man had twice escaped, but when his father needed another loan from the owner, he forced him to bring his son back.” His father came to me asking to borrow more money. I told him: ‘No. You must bring your son back here. Or else return the money you owe me and leave the house I have provided you.” The young boy listened impassively to the tale of his unhappy return to the Pulwama District of Kashmir province. “I was 7 years old when I started this work,” he said later, when the boss was gone. “My family owed 5,000 rupees then. Today, we owe 50,000 rupees.”

They are indentured servants, bought and paid for by Gul Mohammad, who purchased their contracts from a kiln owner in Bandipora, where they had been living in the rental house. Like tens of thousands of Kashmiris, they are trapped in a seemingly endless cycle of poverty that keeps them indebted to their employers, a situation common at many dusty brick kilns that dot the countryside, as well as in some other industries, particularly in rural areas. Banks have high interest rates and the people who labour at the kilns would almost surely be too poor to qualify for loans. They thus borrow from their employers. For a vast majority of workers, there is no escape. Neither for their children who are bound by their parents’ contracts. Their best hope is that the boss will sell their contract to another kiln, where they might be paid more. No matter what, the loan will follow them.

At the kiln where Ashraf works, his father, 55, is haunted by the guilt that his children would inherit his debt. His two youngest sons, 7, and 8, worked beside him in the mud as he spoke. Their hands work with astonishing speed. But the boy looks worn down, exhausted. They have to work for 12-hours a day. “I want to go to school,” says the elder one.

There are 20 kilns in the Pampore District alone, with an average of 150 to 200 children working at each one, according to an owner of a kiln. “These children work in the state of near slavery,” said Sharief Bhatt, Programme Manager Save the Children. “Not only do they suffer from the extreme weather, they are breathing in the smoke from the kilns every day,” Butt added. “It leads to one of the highest death rates in the country from pneumonia and acute respiratory infections.” Farooq Ahmed’s troubles began 20 years ago when he took a loan from a kiln owner for marriage. (The elaborate marriage and funeral ceremonies expected by Kashmiris frequently cost several years’ worth of wages, forcing many people to draw loans that they must work off.) Farooq soon realized that his weekly earnings in the kiln left little or no money to pay down the principal. As his family grew, he like other workers here, found himself having to borrow more money to pay for medicine for his children and other basic needs. His debt to the owner grew greater by the year. The kiln owner pays Farooq and his four sons about Rs 200 for the 1,000 bricks they make a day. The owner can usually make Rs 5000 selling those bricks.

The kiln manager and labour boss defend their practices, saying they have helped many workers. “They were begging in Srinagar streets ,” says the owner. “I paid their loans and brought them back to their own place. Once they finish their loan, they can leave to any other place .” He also noted that owners provided houses, electricity, beds, blankets, water and cash for workers’ family expenses, and served as a safety net with more loans when family members fell ill. The workers say the houses and handouts are a blessing and a curse, keeping them alive but eternally bound to the kilns and the difficult, low-paying jobs. “We are slaves here because when you owe someone money, you’re a slave. If we try to raise our voice, then the owner will simply tell us to leave.” says a child. “A high level official who was recently transferred to the area and was not familiar with the conditions of the workers estimated that at least 2,000 children worked in the kilns in his district. “I know this is not good for kids, but the work provided income for the children’s families; so it is not that simple.” Even Ezabir Ali associated with ATHWAS agrees, to this point. “It is easy to say, take them out from the kilns. If you take away income from a poor family, then that has to be replaced with something.”

A young boy working in a Kiln wants to get married soon. But he looks at his father, trapped in debt cycle for 30 years. “I will have to borrow money to get married. But I am afraid if I borrow money from the kiln owner, I will have to work here forever.”