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Cleaning the environment, brick by brick

Cleaning the environment, brick by brick
In a welcome first step, the Bihar Pollution Control Board has issued an order asking all brick kilns in Patna and adjoining districts  to upgrade to cleaner technologies by the end of this season. The order also prevents setting up of new kilns unless they use cleaner technologies. 

Recent notifications for cleaner technologies in brick kilns in Bihar have set an example that neighbouring Uttar Pradesh and other states in the country should follow. India is the second largest producer of clay-red bricks in the world with an annual production of about 250 billion bricks (10 percent of the global production).

The Gangetic plains of North India comprising the states of Assam, Bihar, Haryana, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh (UP), and West Bengal account for about 65 percent of the total brick production of India. In many of these states, the brick industry is not only the provider of one of the most basic building materials but also a major industry in itself in terms of providing entrepreneurship and employment opportunities to the local population.

With an annual consumption of 35 million tonnes, the brick kiln sector in India is the country’s third largest of the black metal after thermal power and iron and steel plants. The kiln owners have met their coal requirement from the open market with no fixed source and are not averse to using high ash low-quality coal, which increases consumption as well as emissions.

This makes the brick kiln industry a common culprit for increasing short-lived pollutants in the region as well as responsible for overall increased CO2 emissions. The pollutants have an adverse effect on the health of workers and the local population. Several studies point out to the damage caused to human health by short-lived pollutants.  Greater levels of pollution are starting to impact vegetation, exact impacts on locally grown cash crops, for example, mangoes, remains to be studied and offers room for some investigation.

The largely unorganised sector has never really come under the radar of regulatory agencies and as urbanisation and construction work in city accelerates, large brick kiln clusters have mushroomed around national and state capitals as well as other major cities. Recent studies show that more than 1,000 brick kilns are located in the National Capital Region and these are a significant contributor to air pollution and poor air quality in the Delhi and its neighbouring clusters.

Transition to cleaner brick production technologies, therefore, has immense potential for energy savings, reductions in SPM, BC and CO2 emissions, improvements 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 in India.
China and Vietnam are excellent examples where the transformation of the brick industry is driven through comprehensive national-level policy on building materials including bricks.

Active involvement of state governments in the development of the brick industry is highly desirable. The Bihar notification is ray hope in this direction. A clean brick manufacturing process will ensure that these big leaps in infrastructure development together with tackling climate change.

Environmental Impact assessment (EIA) has been an effective and important tool and it must be used rigorously on the Brick kilns Industry.  At the same time, bricks should be given priority in the rating system of green buildings. Research and training institutes at the regional level must work directly with entrepreneurs to improve energy efficiency, reduce emissions and utilisation of waste to replace clay. Financial Institutions must come up with tailored financial products for the ailing brick sector.

The rub is that due to the political clout of the brick-kiln owners, few state governments have dared to regulate it despite large-scale complaints by environmentalists for their role in contributing to air pollution and human right grounds’ campaign against their use of bonded labour.

The representatives from the brick kiln industry 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 with an objective to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide and black carbon.

While the road map selected by Bihar to modernise the brick kiln sector must be taken by other states, the Centre must also play a pro-active role. As per CSE, an estimated amount of 25–35 million tonnes of coal per year is consumed by the brick kiln Industry. This effectively means that since 2010, the brick kiln sector has contributed Rs 1,625–2,275 crore towards National Clean Energy Fund. Unfortunately, not even a fraction of this has been used to technologically upgrade the brick sector.

In his budget speech, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley announced that environment cess (or the levy on coal, lignite, and peat) is being doubled from Rs 200 per tonne to Rs 400 per tonne. Coal being an important raw material which is used in the brick industry will lead to a collection of around Rs 700 crore under the ambit of the National Clean Energy Fund.

Environmentalists believe if this fund can be utilised to create awareness among brick entrepreneurs, upgrade skills of brick kiln workers and create technical cells at the state level for upgrading technology, then things can change for better.

(The author is a veteran  journalist. The views 
expressed are personal.)

Yogesh Vajpeyi

Yogesh Vajpeyi

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