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Killing Hope: Dhaka's Brick Kilns Dystopia

keith harmon snow | Bangladesh

Fire keepers shovel scoops of powdered coal into the vents at this kiln. Environmentalists in Bangladesh (and India) have claimed (rightly) that the brick kilns not only pollute the air, but are also causing acidification and toxic burning of fertile topsoils, thus pushing the country toward food insecurity.

Kiln Hope: Dhaka is perhaps the world's most polluted and heavily populated city. The fast past of change and increasing industrialization are coupled with a near complete lack of regulations or protections on human health, labor, safety or the environment.

The brick kilns of Dhaka's Savar District—exemplifying the worst conditions—are killing people. The production of bricks at kilns involves the burning of biomass, coal, used tires, etc., and the constant burning creates a toxic haze that settles over everything. Mixed with the toxic fumes from nearby unregulated manufacturing, the air, soil and water are heavily polluted. In general, Dhaka'a air particulate concentrations are more than 90 times greater than the levels recommended by the World Health Organization. One kiln produces some 48,000 kilograms of carbon monoxide in one season, the Bangla calendar year is traditionally divided into six seasons, and there are more than 5000 kilns in Bangladesh producing some 15 billion bricks annually, valued at US$640 million. This story focuses on the people and kilns along the Buriganga River in Dhaka's Savar District.

The government of Bangladesh has apparently passed legislation that would mitigate the environmental degradation and pollution due to the massive brick kiln industry. Some kilns have been designated 'illegal' while others are considered legitimate. The World Bank is also involved, pressing its devastating policies onto the country, shackling the country with debt, some of which include its interventions in the brick making industries. Sadly, both the delineation of illegal versus legal kilns, and the World Bank's interventions, are too easily prone to - and hence revolve around - power and corruption. 

In late 2019 the government set about to destroy some operating kilns, and did. Some of these were immediately rebult. The entire process reeks of favoritism and elitism. Those who stand to suffer most are the laborers, who have (obviousy) in many cases taken the only work they can find. Hence they also accept the only salaries they can get. People who complain will be marginalized, and replaced, because population pressures dictate that the economy revolves around cheap unrganized disposable labor. The immediate future for brick kiln workers in Bangladesh is, therefore, ominous. 

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