Facing criticism over its inept response to airpollution, the Bangladeshi government shut down several 'illegal' brick kilns in Dhaka, affecting tens of thousands of low-income workers.
Mahfuza Begum could not believe her eyes as a government excavator first entered into her workplace and then started tearing it apart on a foggy December morning.
The first thought that hit the 30-year-old Bangladeshi mother’s mind was: “How would I pay the house loan if I go unemployed now?”
Begum was a day-labourer in one of some 7,500 brick kilns in the country, almost half of which have recently been declared illegal for belching soots that apparently played a key role in clogging the air quality of Dhaka, Bangladesh's capital city, bringing it notoriety in global news headlines.
Embarrassed by an international Air Quality Index (AQI) result that showed Dhaka becoming the cherry on top of the most air-polluted cities’ list in recent weeks, the authorities figured shutting down the illegal kilns could change the scenario.
People – of course mostly the dwellers of the boisterous and overcrowded metropolitan – welcomed the move. But they forgot about one thing: poor labourers like Begum were deeply affected by the surprise unemployment.
Hailing from a remote village in southwestern Satkhira district, the mother of two had been struggling for years since her family lost acres of farmland to harsh salinity -- a phenomenon related to sea-level rise that affects some 20 million in the coastal region, according to the country’s environment ministry.
These people were compelled to either shift professions or migrate elsewhere. They turned into climate refugees. So was Begum after a powerful cyclone swept through her village leaving the land covered with seawater salts – making it barren.
“I was a housewife. We had plenty – paddy, cattle and fishes. But since the cyclone, everything turned into a nightmare. We were bound to sell most of our property,” Begum reminisced in tears next to her former workplace in central Manikganj district.
Begum and her husband Hasan Ali took a high-interest loan to build a small house on the last piece of land they have and left their children with her parents in Satkhira to search for work. But barely they knew, difficult days were still lying ahead.
The couple travelled some 210 kilometres along with another 40 people from their village, all of them were climate migrants, needless to say, and arrived in Saturia town in Manikganj.
They joined a brick kiln with some 300 labourers where they were earning around 300 taka ($3.50) per day. They lived in bamboo and tarpaulin-made shanties under the open sky to save a little bit more to repay debts quickly and for the sake of children’s education.
“We went through enough hardship. I didn’t want my kids to go through it,” Begum said.
But as an executive magistrate marched into the three-acre brickfield with the metal-teethed excavator flanked by platoons of law enforcers in the early December morning, Begum and Ali got a hint something bad was going to happen for them.
“We were not told. The kiln owner didn’t tell us a thing! I am completely lost now. I have so much debt on my name,” Abdus Samad, a 49-year-old fellow southwesterner labourer, broke down sobbing as Begum and others tried to pacify him.
Magistrate Tamzeed Ahmed said they were shutting down the kilns according to the country’s top court’s order. He also added the owners were given multiple warnings to take necessary steps to reduce losses.
Ahmed and his colleagues within two and a half weeks tore down some 99 such kilns and counting around Dhaka, according to Rubina Ferdowshy, the enforcement director in the country’s environment department.
“We also have fined them over 30,000,000 taka,” she said adding such operations “will be continued countrywide”.
But the most affected owners denied any notice given by the authorities.
“We did not have enough time to remove the already-made bricks. I could have saved at least 2,000,000 taka,” kiln owner Nazrul Islam said who also owns businesses in other sectors.
The country’s Brick Manufacturers Association general secretary Abu Bakar said how over two million people workers and their families in the industry were being affected due to these drives.
“We have been in discussion with the government for years. This year many of us are losing a lot of money thanks to the shutdown drives. Over two million workers' bread and butter is at stake,” he said.
He pointed out that Dhaka’s air quality has not improved significantly though nearly a hundred kilns were shut down. He urged the authorities
to “give attention elsewhere” including heavy industries, vehicular emission and construction across the city to improve air quality.
Such grinding dissensions between the government and kiln owners continue as workers like Begum, Ali and Samad pay the price of being scapegoats.
Neither their employers nor the government provided them with any compensation. When asked owner Islam said: “how would I pay 350 people wages when I have turned into a man with nothing?”
Magistrate Ahmed said: “there is no compensation for illegal work.”
Insisting to remain anonymous, a top labour ministry official said the authorities “have not thought this through”.
“The first priority was to bring Dhaka’s air quality to normalcy. But we should have thought of a rehabilitation programme for the labourers who lost their kiln jobs,” the official said.
Bangladesh has been successfully fighting poverty in recent decades with a GDP growth of over 7.3 percent. But simultaneously the country of 168 million is prone to global climate change effects, which has practically devoured its coastline.
It is not simple for the climate migrant kiln workers to return home as work is verily scarce in the futile land. They would rather need to relocate, again, and search for other labouring jobs that have a very competitive market across the country where 1,200 people live per square kilometres.
“And eventually they may end up crowding the 20 million-strong Dhaka’s streets in search of work,” Bakar said.
Ali echoed Bakar’s views saying there's a possibility "we will head to Dhaka; my wife could work as a housemaid and I’d pull a rickshaw.”
As Ali was digging a way out plan, his fellow jobless neighbours nodded agreeing to the idea.
Abdur Rashid, a curious, septuagenarian primary school teacher who overheard the conversation, smirked and turned to this reporter, pointing at the group: “speaking of survival -- a perfect example of Darwin’s theory”.
“So much for Dhaka to take,” he said.