All over Nepal and India, brick factories rise up whenever there are patches of open land near a large city such as Kathmandu. Work migrants from subsistence farming villages in crisis labor there under what is just one of the multifarious forms of modern slavery.
Along the wide margins of the Kathmandu Valley, wherever the density of population at the city's center begins to give way to patches of farmland, giant red clay conical smokestacks, rise scattered across the landscape like the statues on Easter Island or Stonehenge, or like little Towers of Babylon. The smokestacks each mark the entrance to a unique world and reality of its own, the world of the brick factory.
When the stacks are spewing thick black smoke it is a sign that the furnace has been fired up and soft bricks the color of clay are being fired and hardened into the familiar red bricks from which Kathmandu is built. Bare-chested and coated in dust and ashes, sinewy young men, skinny and strong, carry 20 bricks at a time stacked and balanced on their heads to waiting trucks. They carry the bricks from where they have been cooling near the mouth of the furnace and run with them, both because the bricks are so heavy they must hurry before the sheer weight of the bricks overpowers them, and because they earn their money per load of bricks.
The young men carrying the bricks are actually Indians, not Nepalis. They are from Bihar, which shares a long, lowland border with Nepal. Two to four million Nepalis migrate seasonally to India each year, returning home for festivals, or to plant rice, so it is surprising perhaps that Indians migrate to Nepal for the same purpose, but Bihar is one of the poorest states in India.
As they run out of the gate of the bare courtyard surrounding the furnace, a haze of dust and smoke moving with them, they pass a man who looks at them intently, but casually, with the calmness of the trained eye. It is his job to count the bricks on the top of heads and to drop a rusty slug into the appropriate plastic jar. At the end of their shift, the young men will be paid according to the slugs that have been deposited in their jar—paid little, but still enough to send some rupees home to their families, perhaps.
In any case, the Biharis make more money than the vast majority of the brick factory workers, nearly all of them Nepalis from rural villages, internal refugees who lost their land because of illness or debt, or because the quality of the soil and its fertility failed them. Now, as if the land itself must participate in an ongoing ritual of penance for having sent them into exile, their job is to send the earth itself into exile, in small hardened pieces. They scoop mud out of a water-filled pit—the 20 dunam or so surrounding the brick factory are dotted with such pits--drag the mud to where it can be pressed into a brick-shaped mold with the insignia of the brick factory in raised letters on one side, then stack the still wet bricks in the sun to dry. If it rains before the end of the day when the supervisor comes around to count them, the bricks will melt and all their labor will be lost.
The landless workers come mostly in families, a husband and wife and two or three small children. They live and work on the lands surrounding the brick factory, land which is utterly stark, bereft of any vegetation at all—just mud and dust and bricks. Children of two or three years old—at four or five they may already be working, dragging mud or shaping bricks—play naked amidst the desolation. The families live in tiny hovels, impossible to stand in, made of defective or broken bricks cast off from the factory, and cook inside on open fires. The toilet is a field of weeds a few dozen meters away. The families, working together from dawn until dusk, make enough to buy food for themselves and perhaps to save a little money for when they will be out of work again—the factory operates only eight months a year, closing a month or so from the beginning of the monsoon. The workers move back to their home village then, if they do have a small piece of land to work, or try to get hired as a farm hand during the monsoon planting. The family's seasonal migration means that the children can't enroll in school—the school year begins in April, just as the factory is beginning to close down for the rain-filled summer. Instead of school, many of the children—some 60,000, according to a report issued by Concern Nepal, a local NGO in 2004—work in the brick factory.
I bring a group of young Israelis to see the brick factory. Not wanting to come empty-handed, we buy oranges to give out. One of the young men from the brick factory holds the orange in his palm. He's never eaten an orange and does not know how to peel it. "What do you do with this?" he asks, holding up the golden orb. How can I get to the inside?
The brick factory families are part of a steady and increasing flow of migrant workers who have abandoned Nepal's cities and villages over the past decade and headed for Kathmandu or for international destinations. At least a million villagers—and indications are strong that it is even more-- have moved to Kathmandu over the last decade; Hundreds of thousands more work in the city much of the year, such as those at the brick factory.
Kathmandu. An amazing name for an amazing place. In the 16th century, the three kingdoms of Kathmandu Valley had achieved extraordinary levels of artistic and cultural sophistication, a richness of material life, and a unique coexistence of Hinduism and Buddhism. Still today, Pashupati Temple on the Bagmati river running into Kathamndu is pulsing with life and energy, with Sadhus who cover their bodies in the ashes from burial pyres so as to constantly remember the day of death. And at the same time, the city is also surrounded by Tibetan Buddhist monasteries and several of Tibetan Buddhism's most revered holy sites. Kathamndu and Lhasa, Tibet's capital, were linked commercially and culturally for centuries. Nepal was the country that most Tibetan refugees passed through initially on escaping the Chinese occupation of Tibet. Many eventually stayed in Kathmandu, including renowned and learned Llamas and wealthy Tibetan businessmen, as well as poor Tibetan villagers.
But Kathmandu has changed over the last twenty years. The two rivers crossing through it, the Bagmati and the Bishnumati, have become foul and polluted, choked with garbage and sewage. The population has tripled, in great part because of a ten year long civil war between the government and the Maoists which began in 2006 and that tore the countryside apart and sent many villagers scrambling for refuge.
Villagers who have come to live in Kathmandu may well end up living in a hovel or a crowded flop-house. They may be unable to always feed their children. More likely than not, their daily wardrobe includes ancient plastic thongs on their feet, even older shorts, and a ragged t shirt. Many work as porters, carrying impossibly heavy loads from place to place in the city, 12 or more hours a day—their clothes are often torn and sweaty and stained with grease. But the porters will likely have one set of "fancy" urban clothes, clothes meant for those numerous city people who don’t' do physical labor for a living. All year round, the migrants to the city store their urban costume carefully in a plastic suitcase, along with a pair of shoes. Only once in a year, directly following the end of the Monsoon, these clothes are retrieved from storage and worn. Oddly enough, this one time of year—during the holidays of Dasein and Tihar—is the only occasion that all the city dwellers return to their home village. They wear the fancy clothes because it is a holiday, yes, and also to show the people in the village that they have found success in the city. They thus become yet another aspect of the seemingly irresistible charisma and attraction of the city, the one and only city in Nepal (Kathmandu's closest rival, Biratnagar, has one tenth of its population). Kathmandu is made of bricks, for one thing, and everyone in Nepal knows that a building of bricks is better, more substantial, than the villages mud and manure-walled huts.
Although for the villagers, Kathmandu is, strange and wondrous and terrible beyond what they could have imagined, within the hierarchy of work migration destinations, Kathmandu is still the lowest in prestige, its laborers the low-caste among migrant workers. Slightly higher on the ladder of prestige is India. Two million Nepali migrant workers are said to be in India at any given time of year, earning Indian rupees—worth about 55% more than Nepali rupees—at menial jobs. Above the migrants to India are the one million Nepalis working in the Gulf States and Saudi Arabia. The pay is substantially higher than in India—up to 300$ a monthly for manual labor—on the other hand, the conditions are akin to those in a vast archipelago of labor camps, housed in barrack-like dormitories and with individual freedoms non-existent. The Nepalis are, once again, low-caste within the Babylon of nationalities—Sri Lankan and Romanian and Pakistani and so on—serving as laborers in the Gulf States. A Nepali-made documentary made last year followed a group of several dozen Nepalis flying to one of the Gulf States for work. But their employees, who were supposed to show up at the airport, didn't. The Nepalis are left stranded outside the airport; seemingly invisible, somewhat less than human, they draw no attention, no one comes to their aid. Days pass. Some of the Nepalis eventually lose heart, and get back on a plane for Kathmandu, jobless and in debt after having borrowed money to pay the manpower company. Others are eventually picked up by the company who had ordered them—after ten days of camping out near the airport entrance.
Still, scrimping on the Gulf salary, the Nepalis can send 100 dollars a month home to their families. They can buy a new cell-phone—and they almost all do, wearing it against their ear on their return to Nepal as a diadem flashing success.
After the Gulf migrants, as we ascend, are the Nepalis lucky enough and with access to enough money to get to places like Singapore, Hong Kong…and Israel. Israel is seen as inferior to Europe, Japan, South Korea, Australia or the United States, but not still a hefty step up from the Gulf. 15,000 Nepalis work legally in Israel (and probably 2000 more illegally) nearly all of them caregivers, and the vast majority women. Israeli starting pay for the Nepalis is 2 to 3 times what they would get in the Gulf. While the human rights situation for Nepalis in Israel leaves much to be desired, it is incomparably better than conditions in the Islamic monarchies of the Gulf.
Which is not saying much, because injustices and potential tragedies await in Israel as well. To get a visa and work assignment to Israel, Nepalis pay 7 or even 8 thousand dollars in cash to Nepali manpower agents who in turn fork over about 2/3 of the money to Israeli manpower companies. (This despite an Israeli law forbidding manpower agencies from charging more than 3300 shekels for facilitating employment in Israel.) In order to get that money—a huge sum for nearly all Nepalis—the prospective workers must borrow heavily, usually with a lien on their land as collateral. Heavily in debt, the Nepali women are as powerless almost as indentured servants—they must keep their job for at least a year or a year and a half, or they risk ruin in a society that has no safety net, no guarantees against free fall into destitution. This gives employers leverage and power, beyond the substantial advantage they already have in their relationship with Nepali employees. This power is sometimes abused, sometimes severely abused. Other Nepalis go into debt to come to Israel only to discover that they lack the minimum skills for employment here—some knowledge of English for example—and are forced to return home. Or sometimes the elderly man or woman they are caring for dies after six months or a year, and the Nepali worker fails to find another employer. That workers from places like Nepal, India, China or Ghana must put themselves into potentially ruinous debt in order to work here at demanding jobs at minimum wage is outrageous in any way you slice it.
Five months ago, Israel "closed the skies" to Nepali workers, in an effort to stem the exploitation by manpower agencies. No new visas are being issued for Nepali workers in the meantime, as the Israeli government attempts to negotiate an agreement with the Nepali government that will ensure that the Israeli law, forbidding exploitation by the manpower companies, is enforced.
An hour and a half drive from Kathmandu, by the banks of the Trisuli river, some 5000 men, women and children are encamped in makeshift shacks of plastic and bamboo. The physical conditions here are better than in the brick factory—at least the air is not choked with dust, there is water for washing clothes and bathing, and trees and vegetation nearby. The families working here are producing gravel for cement, which like the bricks, supports the building boom that began in Kathmandu about 15 years ago, after a weak and ineffective democracy replaced monarchic dictatorship, and a Maoist rebellion tore apart the countryside, sending hundreds of thousands from the villages to the safety of the city.
The river is filled with large smooth stones, which the people drag from the river to the banks. They place the stones within a round band of thick rubber, and smash them with a hammer, until they are small enough to mix into cement—the rubber stops them from scattering. All day, seven days a week, from dawn until dusk, they smash the stones and throw them into a pile. Towards evening, a pickup truck stops in front of the pile. The stone crushers push the gravel into large plastic buckets, and carry them to the truck. For every bucket filled to the brim with gravel, they get a few rupees—less than a cent. Out of the money they receive they have to pay "rent" to the people who own the land by the river bank. Many of the men and some of the women get drunk on homemade alcohol nearly every night—some report that the pain in their arms and shoulders from the repetitive smashing would otherwise not allow them to sleep.
Most of the workers are from far away. A women of about 35 tells us her story: she comes from the Terrai, the fertile Nepali lowlands that hug the Indian border to the south. 8 years ago her husband died, and she found herself owing 5000 rupees—about 80 dollars. She moved here in order to earn cash to pay back her debt. "Did you manage to pay it back?" "I did," she smiles sheepishly. "But now there are new debts." Sitting next to her is a younger woman, about 23 years old, with a 2 year old child by her side. 'I moved here with my parents when I was 13," she recounts. "So did my husband. We met here by the riverside." And here her child was born.
Some of the stone quarry workers are from close by. A ten minute walk up a steep bluff where the land sinks towards the river will bring you to a village inhabited by the Dunba Rai. 35 years ago, before the road was cut connecting Kathmandu to Pokhara, decades before the stone quarry workers arrived, the Dunba Rai were the only people living in the area. They made their living as they had for centuries—as all the 70,000 or so Dunba Rai of Central Nepal do--fishing in the river. But the river has polluted, dammed up, or otherwise compromised—in this stretch, because of the activity of the stone crushers, who disturb the breeding habitat of the fish. Not enough fish in the river anymore, or no fish at all, or no river at all. The Rai do have some land. They are trying to become farmers. But they don't yet have enough knowledge, enough experience. So the Rai too have begun to crush stones into gravel. Gravel for the building of Kathmandu.
Hills rise up sharp and high, and then more and higher hills. In the distance, on a clear day, you can see the Himalayas in the distance, all the way even to Everest in the East, still covered with snow and ice despite global warming. The hill people carve terraces into the steep slopes and plant corn in the spring, rice and millet during the summer monsoon, cauliflower, cabbage, ginger and turmeric in the winter.
Despite their ingenious use of the land they have and their hard work, most of the villagers cannot grow enough food to feed themselves for the whole year. Six months, eight months perhaps. Land reform is long overdue—absentee landlords from the upper castes own much of the fertile land, and take 50% of whatever villagers manage to grow there. And chemical fertilizers and pesticides, pushed as the green revolution in the 80's and 90's, have also left their mark, diminishing the fertility of the land.
In many of the villages, most of the men are simply absent, working in Kathmandu or the Gulf. They send money back to the villages, but they also reduce the size and prestige of the workforce engaged in agriculture, and push the village towards a cash economy, away from the subsistence living that characterized the villages for generations. With cash flowing into some families in the village, classes begin to form, classes within castes, that disturb the solidarity that the agricultural villages need to survive and thrive.
And so the city grows. More bricks are needed, and more cement. The smokestacks discharge their smoke into the air. The rivers bring forth their stones.