The rickety taxi flew at a frantic pace on Dhaka’s ring road when the view in front of me suddenly appeared; it was Dante’s hell. We were entering a vast area full of twenty to thirty chimneys, all belching black smoke amid lakes of toxic water reflecting surreal silhouettes. It felt like a scene from an apocalyptic movie. Some might call it surrealistic. However, the reality was more prosaic – these were brick factories.
Today, more than 7,000 brick factories in Bangladesh produce between 23 and 32 billion bricks a year. This is an enormous industry feeding more than 1 million people, of whom around 33% are children under 15 years.
I stopped the taxi next to two young men sitting in chairs just in front of the chimneys and the toxic ponds. They smoked and talked as if they were standing in front of a swan lake with lilies.
In Bangladesh, bricks have been manufactured for centuries due to the abundant quantities of suitable clay from the nearby rivers and waterways. The method of production has changed little. The brick blanks are made manually from clay paste pressed into special matrices and then baked in ovens when ready. These kilns continuously belch toxic gases and dust caused by the use of low-quality coal. Environmental pollution is epic, and on top of that, the brick factories are usually situated in areas close to towns.
I managed to visit several brick factories in Bangladesh. In Chittagong, I found one where I could walk freely around and take pictures as much as I wanted, unlike at the Chittagong Ship-breaking yards. I’m not sure if this would have been possible if the owner had been there. Anyway, that gave me the chance to take close-up photos of the production.
Almost everything was done manually; bricks and clay were carried in huge baskets on the heads or dragged on specially made wheel-carts by adult workers and boys. Three boys were pushing primitive wheel-carts with wooden platforms attached to them up the riverbank. Another group of men was pouring the clay into special matrices, forming it in brick’s shape. The third group of workers was putting the raw bricks into the kilns to bake.
A group of boys, some under the age of 15, watched me with interest as I took pictures. One of them was smoking a cigarette staring at me with the look of an adult. I took portraits of almost all of them.
People are working here because of the lack of an alternative, and children to support their parents. Most of the workers are probably trapped in a debt loop, turning them into modern-time slaves.
In the brick factories, low-quality coal and garbage are burned, producing a suffocating black gas mixture that slowly rises, merging with the low clouds -the environmental pollution is of epic proportions.
There are currently 11 national and international official regulations, laws, and other documents, two of which are directly related to this industry. Now, seven years after my visit there (2013), I am sure that almost nothing or very little has changed in these people’s lives, despite the tons of documents and good wishes.
When I have a problem, falling into depression, despair, or something like that, I remember the boy’s muddy smile. This memory always acts as a cure for self-pity.
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