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In Pakistan, the government shut down brick kilns in the Punjab province to curb the smog that arrives at the start of winter. The intentions seemed good, but the victims of the policy were the brick kiln workers themselves, already steeped in poverty.

Was the policy effective? Was it just for show? Why the Punjab government did not think of asking the cement industry to halt its processes? And most importantly, what happened to the brick kiln workers?

Our small grants winner, Maham Javaid, visits Kasur, a city located to the south of Lahore, to find out

“It’s as if mother nature herself is against my marriage,” says Rehanna, 20, who has been engaged to be married for two years now. That’s a little longer than she wanted, and much longer than her family estimated it would take them to save up for her wedding. But, after a long day of work at a brick kiln in the outskirts of Kasur, a city located to the south of Lahore, Pakistan, Rehanna claims that her life is in the hands of nature and the government.

Rehanna has been moulding wet clay into bricks along with her sisters and mother, for as long as she can remember. “It’s back breaking work. At the end of the day, you don’t have energy to think or complain,” she says. “But we are in debt of the brick kiln owner, and he won’t let us find other work till we pay him back.”

This may take a long time. The wages of brick makers are PKR1 per brick. On a good day, Rehanna’s family collectively earns PKR700 per day. Wages are paid every Friday.

Until a few months ago, Rehanna thought nothing could be worse than working at the kiln. Then the Punjab government ordained that all brick kilns in the province be shut for 70 days in order to curb the smog that arrives in Punjab at the start of winter.

The truth is that air quality in the region is terrible year round, but since air quality is only visible in winter months via the smog, government policies, so far, are focused on winter. Lahore, the country’s second largest city, is hit hardest by the air pollution and smog, a mix of SO2, NO2, CO, particulate matter PM2.5 and PM10, trace metals and other poisonous chemicals. Urban air pollution in Pakistan is among the most severe in the world and is capable of significantly damaging human health and the country’s economy.

When the kiln shut down, Rehanna realized that things could always get worse. Her family’s meagre income disappeared, they began using her wedding savings to feed themselves, hence pushing her marriage plans even further.

In the outskirts of Lahore, Rukhsana, 35, another brick molder tells a similar story. When the kiln her family works at was shut down, she found work cleaning houses in the city so that her family had enough to eat. “It didn’t help that all this happened just as winter was coming. We have to buy provisions to stay warm,” says Rukhsana. “Does no one think about us when they make these big decisions?”

One would think that nature wouldn’t know how to discriminate between rich and poor, man and woman. But in the case of Lahore’s air pollution, referred to as smog, this has proven untrue. Those hit hardest by the government’s fight against the smog have been the poor.

Mehar Abdul Haq, the secretary general of All Pakistan Kiln Owners’ Association says that about 500,000 families work for the approximately 10,000 brick kilns across Punjab. Each family comprises of about 5 people, that’s 2,500,000 affected people ­­– half of whom are women.

Maham Javaid is a freelance journalist and contributing editor for Naya Daur, an independent digital media portal. Her reporting focuses on the rights of gender, sexual, ethnic, and racial minorities. The stories she can’t write in news magazines; she turns into fiction. She has previously worked at The News on Sunday and DAWN’s Herald magazine in Pakistan and Timeline in the US. Her work has appeared in The Nation, Foreign Policy, Al Jazeera English and The Diplomat. She holds a Masters degree in Near Eastern Studies from New York University and has taught at the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS). 

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