Umerkot is surrounded by smoke-emitting brick kilns which pose a serious threat to health and environment
Ramesh Oad, 37, works at a brick kiln near Umerkot city. So do four of his family members. They earn Rs 500 for making 1,000 bricks a day. They are paying a heavy price for employment as almost everyone in this dirt-poor family is suffering from respiratory and skin diseases.
“My father Heman brought us here in 2006. Since then we have been unable to leave as we have accumulated debt,” says Oad.
“My father died three years ago after battling with tuberculosis for many years. My mother passed away last year due to asthma. I have a skin allergy due to which the colour of my hands and feet is turning reddish. I have itchy spots on my palms. My younger brother, Ashok, has an eye infection. My wife Kamlan and my sister-in-law Parwati are TB patients,” he adds.
Talking about the making of bricks, Ramesh’s brother Ashok, 25, says, “We all go fetch soil and mud from a nearby vacant/ uncultivated land and mix it with water provided by the kiln manager through bowsers/tankers using our feet and hands. Clay lumps are then forced into moulds to make a brick. The bricks are sun-dried for some time before being fired in the.”
Ashok says the hands and feet of thousands of workers at these kilns are exposed to the clay, polluted water. He says they are also exposed to air thick with smoke.
According to a survey conducted by SPARK in 2019, there are nearly 250 brick kilns in Umerkot district. More than 70 of these are located within three kilometres of the city. A total of 7,811 labourers are working on these kilns. Among the workers there are 4,921 men and 2,890 women.
A hotspot of diseases
Umerkot district has a population of 1.073 million. It has become a hotspot of several diseases, mostly caused by air pollution at and around brick kilns.
Naroo Bheel, 62, from Kharorro Charan village, says that in every household of Umerkot city and its surrounding villages there is some patient suffering from a respiratory or a skin disease. “Our village is at a distance of 2.5 kilometres from the city. There are 22 brick kilns between the village and the city. I have lung cancer. My wife Dheeman has TB and my 23 years old son, Naresh Kumar, has been suffering from a mystery skin disease. Almost every household in our village and has a similar story to tell,” he says.
“During the last 7 years, most of the patients from Umerkot city and its surrounding villages I have attended to at the government hospital have been diagnosed with either TB or asthma. There have been many complaints of skin diseases, particularly by kiln workers,” says Dr Ghanshamdas, a senior medical officer.
During a visit to some villages near the city, one comes across women complaining about miscarriage and stillbirth.
Dr Shabina, the lead gynecologist at a private clinic in Umerkot city, says there is a connection between polluted air and pregnancy complications. “When pregnant women inhale tiny dust particles they go deep in the respiratory tract and create problems for both the mother and the child.”
Threat to the
Sardar Bhayo is an environmentalist based in Umerkot. He says that on the Umerkot-Chhor road, Umerkot-Kunri road, Umerkot-Mirpurkhas road and Umerkot-Dhoronaro road there are more than 60 brick kilns.
“There has been a significant decline in the number of trees, i.e. babbar (acacia nilotica), khabbar (salvadora persica), and kandee (prosopis cineraria). These trees are cut for firewood for the kilns. The deforestation poses a severe threat to many bird species, including rose-ringed parakeets, vultures, sparrows, and mynahs,” notes Bhayo.
Both the government and kiln owners turn a blind eye to the safety and health of workers. As most of the kilns are unregistered, no government official monitors the working conditions there.
Kavita Oad, 28, the breadwinner for her family says that her husband and elder son fell into the furnace last year and died. “We are not provided any safety kits. We have to work in precarious conditions. Many workers have died after falling into furnaces since I started working here,” she says.
Another labourer, Jamna Oad, 35, says that many workers, especially children, suffer from waterborne diseases due to the unavailability of clean drinking water. “I have lost my 2-year-old daughter, Radha, who had diarrhea. The water our manager provides is brought from a pond. We have to drink it because there is no other option.”
The deputy commissioner says he has directed the district labour officer to register the kilns and the labourers.
District Labour Officer Gulzar Ahmed Arain says political influence of the brick kiln owners is a stumbling block in ensuring the safety and security of workers. “Every time we have tried to take legal action against brick kiln owners, they have threaten to kill us have us transferred.”
Nadeem ur Rehman memon, the deputy commissioner, says he has directed the concerned departments to issue notices to brick kiln owners to shift brick kilns away from the city.
The residents of Umerkot believe the district government cannot enforce its orders. They say the brick kiln owners are powerful people.
Moti Lal Malhi, a local businessman says, “the deputy commissioner is the head of the district vigilance committee. He does not even know the remaining members of this committee. Many deputy commissioners in the past have issued orders regarding registration and shifting of brick kilns but to no avail.
The writer is a freelance journalist. He can be reached at abbaskhaskheli110 @gmail.com