In a major initiative to kick-start overdue reforms in India’s largely unregulated brick kiln sector, the Bihar government has asked kiln owners to either switch to greener technologies or shut down. Notifications issued by the state pollution board have made it clear that kilns in and around state capital Patna must upgrade their technologies by the end of this season. New licences to set up kilns will now be issued only if owners are adopting clean technologies. Existing brick kilns in rest of the state too must do so by mid-2017.
Bihar has set an example that neighbouring Uttar Pradesh and other states should follow. India is the world’s second largest producer of clay-red bricks—about 250 billion, or 10 per cent of the production.
The Gangetic plains of North account for 65 per cent of the total brick production of India. In these states, the industry is a major source of livelihood and enjoys significant political clout despite being a major contributor to air pollution and alleged violation of labour laws.
The industry is India’s third largest consumer of coal after thermal power and iron and steel plants. Kiln owners are not averse to using high-ash, low-quality coal, procured from the open market, which increases consumption and emissions. This makes brick kilns a culprit for increasing short-lived pollutants in the region as well as CO2 emissions. Several studies point out to the damage by such pollutants to human health.
Unfortunately, the industry has never really come under the radar of regulatory agencies. As urbanisation and construction work in cities accelerate, large brick kiln clusters have mushroomed around national and state capitals and other major cities. For instance, more than 1,000 kilns are located in the National Capital Region and are a significant contributor to air pollution.
Transition to cleaner brick production technologies, therefore, has immense potential for energy savings, reduction in carbon emissions, improvement in the incomes and working conditions of workers, and production of better quality building material. Transformation of the brick industry requires a national-level policy framework aiming at cleaner brick production. India needs to learn from China and Vietnam, where transformation of the brick industry is driven through comprehensive national-level policy on building materials, including bricks.
Active involvement of state governments is highly desirable. The Bihar notification is a ray of hope in this direction. A clean brick manufacturing process will ensure that these big leaps in infrastructure development work in synergy with the tackling of climate change.
It is time that the tool of Environmental Impact Assessment was applied rigorously to transform the industry. Bricks should be given priority in rating system of green buildings. Research and training institutes at the regional level must work with entrepreneurs to improve energy efficiency, reduce emissions and utilise waste to replace clay. Financial institutions must come up with tailored products for the ailing brick sector.
The rub is that due to the political clout of brick-kiln owners, few states have dared to regulate it despite complaints by environmentalists and human rights activists against their use of bonded labour.
Industry representatives refuse to acknowledge that they are part of a larger problem. But experts emphasise on the need to shift to cleaner technology in the next three years to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide and black carbon.
According to estimates by the Centre for Science and Environment, 25-35 million tonnes of coal a year is consumed by the brick kiln industry. This means since 2010, the sector has contributed `1,625-2,275 crore towards National Clean Energy Fund. But not even a fraction of this has been used to technologically upgrade the brick sector.
Environmentalists believe if this fund is utilised to create awareness among brick entrepreneurs, upgrade skills of brick kiln workers and create technical cells at the state-level, India can fight the threat of climate change. firstname.lastname@example.org
Vajpeyi is a freelance journalist and media consultant