Donkey Thefts, Mud Wars and Revenge Murders Fuel Rivalries at These Brick Kilns
village wars

Donkey Thefts, Mud Wars and Revenge Murders Fuel Rivalries at These Brick Kilns

Amid tall chimneys transforming the skyline, there is no brotherhood among bhatta owners in villages of western Uttar Pradesh.

Ahmed Zameer, 27, arrives at his brick kiln on the outskirts of Ganjdundwara—a small town in western Uttar Pradesh—in his imposing SUV. Clad in a white kurta-pyjama and sporting sunglasses that sit perfectly on his handsome face, he invites me to join him for a session of PUBG that he is playing on his Samsung Note smartphone.

“It’s off-season right now,” he informs me, as he keeps knocking down virtual competitors. In the five minutes of our interview-cum-PUBG session, he has killed five enemies. My count: one. “The labourers will come in October from Bihar. We have given Rs 20 lakh to a contractor to hire the best ones for us.” More than 300 people work at the kiln creating a kind of a temporary village around the main furnace.

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Ahmed Zameer at his brick kiln.

Zameer’s family owns two of the 23 such units running in and around the town. The influence they wield in the area comes with its perils in this predominantly feudal and crime-prone belt of Uttar Pradesh. The competitors in the real world are slightly trickier than the virtual ones. “In winters, when the brick production it at its peak, they send goons to scare our labourers. The intention is to break their morale or defect them to their side. They’ve even fired shots in the dead of the night to terrorise us.”

Scaring the workforce is not the only thing that happens at the bhattas, as the brick kilns are referred to here. Fights take place over stealing each other’s clients, labour force and animals—with rivals trying their mighty best to curtail the supply of the most important and scarce raw material from their rivals: fertile soil. The power games at these small-scale factories dictate a lot many things in the villages of western Uttar Pradesh—the local politics, the influence on the panchayat, the election results, and the ever-changing caste dynamics.

Some years ago, a worker had filed a police complaint under the controversial SC/ST Act against Zameer’s father after a fight over alcohol consumption turned into a profanity fest. Since then, they’ve consigned the contentious issues of handling and hiring the labourers to independent contractors. “Sometimes, these contractors or someone from among the labourers would take an advance from a number of bhattas, and would falter on delivering the moulded bricks. This deepens the bad blood among bhattewale,” says Zameer.

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The tall chimneys popping up everywhere in the region are a symbol of the new, volatile wealth. The unending rows of red bricks have become as much a part of the rural landscape as the verdant stretches, defunct petrol pumps, and paddy fields.

Red bricks are now as omnipresent in the landscape here as the green stretches.

Anil Gupta, 42, runs a bhatta in Hasanpur—five kilometres from Ganjdundwara—on a road where most owners are Hindus in an otherwise Muslim majority area. “Some bhatta owners gladly use religion to further their business interests. If a farmer is selling mud to a Muslim, they’d go to him and ask why he is helping the Muslims”, says Gupta, who sells his bricks under the brand name ‘Mata’. Gupta, however, doesn’t care for religious identities. “Both the communities are dependent on each other in our area. There is not a single funeral of my Muslim neighbours which I haven’t attended.”

Anil Gupta, who sells his bricks under the brand name ‘Mata’, doesn’t care for religious identities. But many others do.

After skilled labour, the biggest tussle is sourcing mud from fertile soil for making the bricks; the more the moisture content in the soil, the stronger the brick. “If a farmer is selling mud from his farmland, others might go to him to offer a slightly higher price,” says Gupta. “Villagers take such issues as personal insults.”. The mud is sold by farmers at a reasonable rate of Rs 1.4 lakh per bigha, but that turns the field barren for years. Hence, it’s only sold by farmers if they have a debt or to arrange money for the dowry for their daughters’ wedding.

The fight over fertile soil has turned deadly in the past. A few years ago, Haider Ali started a brick kiln with five partners, but it ended up in bloodshed. Within a few months of the opening, there were disputes among the friends. Then, Razi Ali (one of the partners) had his deal for mud go wrong, when his brother-in-law offered a higher price to the farmer. “The rift kept widening with time. There were lathi wars between the two parties. One day, some unidentified men came and shot Razi down in the dead of the night,” Ali tells me.

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Then, there are the ‘donkey wars’. Donkeys—slowly being replaced by buggies—have been crucial for the working of a bhatta as they transport the bricks from the labourers’ houses to the furnaces. “Businessmen often try to break away the donkey owners. If they don’t budge, they send their goons to steal the animals in the dead of the night. It’s not that easy to distinguish your own donkey from the others,” said Ali.

Yogendra Kumar, who works as a treasurer-cum-manager at a bhatta, told VICE that apart from rivals, fights among labourers themselves are tough to deal with. “Most labourers don’t give a shit about religion, but would fight over funny reasons. ‘Her wife abused my wife, so I’ll beat him up.’ ‘His children fought with mine.’ ‘He nudged me while working.’”

(First from right) Yogendra Kumar.

Kumar adds that the the worst fights are between brothers who have carried over their disputes from their villages in Bihar and Odisha. “In such cases, we post them at least half a kilometre apart.”

Another employee at a nearby bhatta, Saleem Alam* told me that most of these furnaces also act as a means for corrupt village pradhans to steal public money. “They show they are building toilets and homes or are purchasing bricks, and ask us to give them fake bills for that. They then use the lower quality bricks and pocket more than half the amount”.

Zameer tells me that he often feels bad about the bhatta owners being portrayed as villains, but believes that they too need to do the needful to survive in a highly competitive environment. “We are as corrupt as any other big businessman,” he says. Gupta says that there is no brotherhood in this business. “I have family-like relations with some neighbouring traders. But I firmly know that if our business interests clash, they won’t give a damn about me.”

*Name changed at source's request.

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