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  • Ashutosh Joshi

Human Stories - Brick by Brick: Who pays the price for progress?

Updated: Jun 22

By Ashutosh Joshi

In 2022, I decided to go on a walk across India, covering 1850 kilometers from the Arabian Sea to the Bay of Bengal on the other side of the country. The intent behind my walk was to understand the farming crisis in India which was leading to suicides among farmers. 

Here’s a glimpse of what some of India’s farmers are undergoing.

It was a hot afternoon, and the road I was on had just a few trees offering shade. Wired fences on each side added to the unwelcoming atmosphere. I was exhausted, ready to give up, when I spotted an open farm.  I put my luggage aside and lay on the ground.

Thought of the next meal ran in my head but I knew there was nothing to be found for a while. The air smelled like burnt bricks, for the road was surrounded by several brick factories, made obvious by the large stacks of red bricks kept out in the open.

I sat quietly, drinking water, when a man appeared before me.

“Who are you? Where are you going?” he asked, with a curious face. 

I explained my walk's purpose to Raj, who had introduced himself to me by then. He signaled some of his friends to join us.

“Do you work in the brick factory?” I inquired.

“Yes,” came his soft, almost inaudible reply.

“Your walk seems incredible, even more difficult than the one we were on during the COVID-19 pandemic,” he added.

Other men from the factory gathered, each with a unique story.

“Where did you start? How did you get back home?” I asked.

"From Mumbai, we walked all the way to Nashik. Some days we’d find food, and on others, we slept hungry. Our destination was our village in Vidarbha. My feet were swollen," one man remarked. "A few people were kind and spared us money and food. I'll never forget the day I reached home, I cried when I finally saw my mother", said another.

By then, another man from the brick factory had joined us.

“Did you also have a similar experience?” I asked

“Yes, I was in Pune when the pandemic struck. My factory shut down overnight, and I was asked to leave. I walked all the way to Pusad with my wife and 4-year-old kid,” he replied, rather calmly.

“Are you traveling towards Nagpur? You should visit my village in Pusad,” he added.

Meanwhile, Raj, the one I spoke with before, had disappeared briefly and returned with a tiffin box.

“You must be hungry. This is our lunch. My wife has added some mango pickle and onions. Do you eat Bhakri?” he asked.

I was stunned by his gesture, it would have been impolite to refuse and so I decided to accept whatever he had brought.

Umbraj, the village I stopped at, was a place around 800 km away from Nagpur, the largest city of the Vidarbha region in the North-eastern part of Maharashtra. Many individuals leave Vidarbha, to the bigger cities or sugarcane fields in southern Maharashtra for work, due to lack of educational opportunities and untimely droughts. 

 “So, how do you end up in Umbraj of all places?” I asked, eager to understand what brought them here.

“I left my house when I was 9 years old. We have a small piece of land, but it’s of no use; a dry patch in a drought-ridden area. Left with no other option, I began working on sugarcane farms. I never went to school, so I cannot read or write. I often get confused in a city. The work here is good and I am paid decently. The owner comes to our village and the neighboring villages once a year, picks the families best suited for the factory. We get paid upfront and begin working here immediately. That’s how things work in our part of the world,” Karan explained, looking down at the ground. 

“How much do you get paid?”, I asked

“I got paid forty thousand. For the entire family. My wife works when I sleep. That’s four months worth of work”, he said. 

Another man, a driver delivering bricks from the factory to the city, chimed in, “It’s good pay”. 

Someone remarked that there were no specific work hours—day or night, work continued.

As I drifted away in my thoughts, Raj’s voice interrupted me “Should I bring some more food?”

“No, this should do, thank you”

The men before me were dripping with sweat, covered in torn clothes. Yet, they happily recited their stories, their pain and hurt masked by the smiles on their faces. I turned around, gazing at the same brick factory with a fresh perspective. I saw a woman, who could very well have been Raj’s wife, walking up a 3 storey pile of bricks, carrying a sack full of soil. An old man, presumably in his 70’s, was pushing a trolley full of bricks towards a warehouse. A dozen women had formed a chain where they were digging the soil and heaping it up in a pile. A man, possibly the owner of the farm, watched authoritatively from a distance in his jeep.

At that moment, my mind went back to each of the houses I had passed by, unaware of the pain and suffering of the farmers from drought-ridden Vidarbha. They were left with no other option than to lead a difficult life. Each brick in those towering stacks at the factory were marked by their blood, sweat and tears. 

To hear that a man would come and select families for work, paying cash upfront and making them work relentlessly was shocking to my ears. Thousands of farmers from Vidarbha migrate to cities or factories like these with the hope of a better future leaving behind the comforts of their homes and communities. 

Witnessing their kids playing around the factory made me ponder about their future, destined to be manual laborers in our cities, if their circumstances did not change. These workers are years, if not decades behind urban folk like me and you, and this gap will only worsen if their kids don’t get educated. 

To add to their struggles, the mechanisms and institutions in place to help these workers out, often work against them. According to the accounts of these workers, in the event of an incident, it is often the hapless victims that end up being blamed while the authorities turn a blind eye to the lapses in safety by these establishments. A simple internet search centered around deaths in brick kilns in India reveals a grimpicture with various news reports of workers, including minors dying by asphyxiation. Over 3000 kiln workers have been reported to have died over the past three years as a result of their working condition.

Digging deeper into the internet about the brick industry in India, I found lots of articles talking about how more and more bricks are needed. They explained why this demand is growing and what problems the industry faces, but they didn't really talk about the people who actually make the bricks. India’s infrastructural push has received international attention and acclaim but the regular folks—men, women, and even kids—who make this possible barely get any attention..

As I contemplated over this issue cast by the booming construction industry, a question arose in my mind, a broader question meant for our society, me and you:

“Is it truly progress when the very foundation of our cities is laid upon the silent sacrifices of such workers? Can we truly claim genuine advancement when the stories of suffering people are swept aside, their voices subdued?”

"Are we, then, not creating a future that looks on the surface, with its true face buried within? Or should we work towards building a future that acknowledges the struggles of all the people who contribute, knowingly or unknowingly, to the structures we call progress?"

Perhaps the true measure of a nation's progress lies not just in the tall skyscrapers that touch the clouds but in the stories that are present in every brick that builds those skyscrapers, the lives lost and impacted while building its foundation. Until we pause to recognize the hidden people behind our dreams of a developed nation and uplift them, our development will forever be incomplete.


Author Info- 

Ashutosh Joshi is an Indian photographer, author and a podcast host. His long-term photography projects have centered on the political and societal transformations within the Indian subcultures. For his most recent project, Ashutosh walked 1850 kms from the Arabian Sea to the Bay of Bengal. He walked through four different states in India, documenting the journey, creating awareness about the destitute farmer crisis and writing a book about it. “Journey to the East” is now available on Amazon India. 

Ashutosh's work has been exhibited in England at the Hardwick Gallery (Cheltenham), in India in the Tao Art Gallery(Mumbai) and at Museum of Goa(Goa). His photographs are held in private collections in English and Scottish cities. Being published in the Guardian, NDTV, The Print, HomeGrown, Lokmat and many local and national newspapers, he now writes on his substack (The Book of Ptah) )and documents for NGO’s working in India.

Insatagram - @ashutoshjoshistudio



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