Rev Up Or Phase Down? Brick Sector’s Million-Dollar Question Has Multiple Implications

Rise in demand for bricks has aided employment and a shift to less polluting technologies, but under-reporting of energy consumption has made it difficult to bring about binding regulations to reduce its carbon footprint

Vijayalakshmi Balakrishnan

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Coimbatore: India, the world’s second-largest producer of bricks, also exports a small yet significant quantity.

Officially, the country uses 35 million tonnes of coal and 25 million tonnes of biomass to produce bricks. While there is no comprehensive record of coal consumption in this highly unorganised industry, the use of biomass fuels is not officially recorded as they are sourced locally.

An IIT Bombay study published in Nature last year, covering 150 districts, found that the sector’s energy use is 100 times higher than what India had reported in its official report to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Dr Sameer Maithel, one of the authors of the study, said that the dissonance could be due to the specificity of UNFCCC’s reporting requirements.

In its biennial report to the UNFCCC, the Indian government has been showing a declining trend in the brick sector’s coal use by quoting data from its annual publication Energy Statistics. When coal consumption is presented graphically, bricks form only a negligible part of the whole. As a result, Energy Statistics showed 0% coal consumption in brick manufacturing in a graph for 2022 and 2023. 

“As early as the 1980s, brick fields were the second or third largest consumers of coal in the country,” Maithel told 101Reporters. Forty years later, brick manufacturing is the nation’s third-largest coal consumer.

Brick manufacturing uses 990 petajoules of energy, which is around 70% of the energy needed for steel production (1,400 petajoules) and about 80% more than cement (550 petajoules). “We found a large under-reporting in current official estimates of energy consumption, with actual energy consumption comparable to that in the steel and cement industries in the country,” the study said. Reason: the brick sector is less regulated and fragmented.

Brick making is essential for the construction industry. “The maximum growth of construction is expected from rural India, where kuccha (mud) houses are making way for pucca (brick) homes,” pointed out J John, former executive director, Centre for Education and Communication.

Production of bricks touched 52,000 tonnes in January 2012, and the demand was estimated to grow at least by 6% to touch 500 billion bricks annually by 2030. However, the 2016 demonetisation led to a drop in offtake of produced bricks by up to 75%. Then came the rollout of Goods & Services Tax (GST) in 2017, which led to a brick manufacturers’ strike, followed by COVID-19 lockdowns in 2020.

In August 2023, brick and non-ceramic tiles production was 41,000 tonnes, still 25% below the peak of 52,000 tonnes. Notably, it was within this period of lower than normal production that the researchers found that energy consumption was 100 times higher.

Between 225 and 250 billion bricks — about 125 bricks per Indian — are manufactured annually, with the majority produced in a manner that is dangerous to both human and planet health. In the next decade, the demand is expected to quadruple.

The key factors that decide the rate of energy consumption are kiln technology, production capacity and fuel mix (coal, biomass, fly ash and piped natural gas) used. Following the enactment of Environment (Protection) Act, 1986, energy consumption regulation in brick kilns has been attempted with limited success. In the last two decades, brick manufacturing has been strategic to international efforts to arrest global warming, and India’s performance has come under scanner.

There have always been low barriers for brick entrepreneurs. Janta Bricks owner Anant Nath Singh launched his stack or haath bhata unit in south Bihar (present-day Jharkhand) in 1975. He invested Rs 30,000 and employed about 100 workers to produce about 20 lakh bricks in the first year, thus recovering his investment within a year. In the last 50 years, change has been constant, but it accelerated since the 1990s.

“We need to accept scientific advances and move with the times,” Singh told 101Reporters, narrating how he transitioned to the Fixed Chimney Bull’s Trench Kiln (FCBTK) in 2001 by investing Rs 25 lakh. He also expanded the production capacity to around 30 lakh bricks per annum.

In 2018, when regulations tightened, he made an additional investment of Rs 50 lakh to convert to zig zag, which reduced coal consumption from 20 tonnes to 12 tonnes for producing one lakh bricks. Notably, this investment paid back in under two years.

Bharat Bricks owner Jalal Khan entered the sector as a worker in moving chimney and stack kilns at the age of 12, before transitioning into a contractor. In 2012, he set up an FCBTK unit in Uttar Pradesh’s Mathura district by investing Rs 50 lakh. He transitioned to zig zag in 2021, and expects to recoup his investment by this year.

Manufacturers are willing to invest because it helps them reduce production costs. “In 2014, no kilns in Bihar used zig zag technology. Today, over 80% of the 8,000 kilns have transitioned to it. Conversion costs about Rs 40 lakh. All of these resources are found and invested by the entrepreneurs themselves,” said Maithel.

Migrant Lives

Around two crore people work in nearly 1.50 lakh brickfields across the country. Nearly 60% of these brickfields are in the Indo-Gangetic belt. At the kilns, entire families work briskly to mould clay, mix soil, frame, fill, stack, carry, fire and stack bricks again.

“There has been a de-emphasis on labour globally while environmental consciousness has grown,” explained John, a long-time advocate of the rights of kiln workers. He said 50,000 to 1 lakh kilns were employing about 5% of India’s workforce a decade ago (NSSO, 2011-12). Both figures could have grown substantially by now.

According to government data from February last year, the country has about 1.40 lakh registered and unregistered brick kilns. Workers are the poorest and the most indebted. Being seasonal migrants, most of them don’t have access to social security schemes. In the past decade, efforts have been made for their inclusion under the public distribution system and other government schemes by registering them on the e-Shram portal.

Anant Nath Singh, also president of Jharkhand Brick Association, said there was no shortage of skilled workers earlier. “In Bihar, paatla (moulder) was a traditional occupation. Over the decades, families have preferred education for their children as it will lead them to other professions.”

When Sandhya (name changed) from Bihar works at a brick kiln in Uttar Pradesh, her 3-year-old daughter is looked after at the day care centre run by a non-profit at the site. Sandhya said once in eight days she and her husband together receive Rs 100 per day for expenses. They also got a cash advance of Rs 15,000. They expect to return home in May with only double that amount despite the hard work.

“Majboori hai,” she said, because there are few work opportunities back home. The couple used to work in farms to receive only rice as compensation. Sandhya is clear that once her child reaches the school-going age, she would not be travelling for work. “Uska bhavishya dekhna hai (we have to prioritise her future),” she added.

The future she has planned is in stark contrast to the lived experience of Purshottam (name changed) from a village in Gaya. He began travelling with his parents to work at brick kilns as a child. While his memory is hazy, Purshottam estimates that he was 12 when he began making bricks.

As calculations are done at the end of the season, he has little idea how much he will return home with. In good times, after deductions for the facilities provided (blanket, for example), it will be twice or thrice the advance he received.

However, Jalal claimed a couple can make between Rs 2 to 3 lakh after deducting all expenses, provided they work continuously.

Manoj (name changed) from Nawada has been a kiln worker for four to five years. When asked about alternative employment, he drew a blank. Clearly, he has not given it a thought.

Negative Perception

AK Tewari, president of All India Brick and Tile Manufacturing Federation, said that there is a negative perception regarding the brick sector. He attributed it to “air pollution, irresponsible earth mining and undocumented employment”. At the national level, air pollution has taken up the maximum mind space, and at the global level undocumented employment, labelled as slavery.

This perception does not acknowledge the changes made at the unit level. India has had a law since 1981 to prevent and control air pollution. Kiln emissions are higher during the three peak winter months when wind speeds are slower and particulate matter tends to hover in the air.

Administrative and policy attention towards air pollution gathered pace in 1996, when the Supreme Court mandated shutting of kilns with moving chimney technology. At that time, suspended particulate matter (SPM) was above 2000 mg/Nm3. Sustained efforts brought it down to three figures, with the mandate to be below 250mg/Nm3 at the stack. Even in the peak winter months, SPM remains between 750-500 mg/Nm3 now. However, this progress has never been acknowledged, noted Tewari.

Solutions exist and are not difficult to implement. Maithel suggested that focus needs to move away from national or state level policy to engaging with the Indo-Gangetic belt as a region.

Tewari suggested focusing on standardisation of brick size. In the UK, from where the ubiquitous kiln design was adapted, the brick size is fixed and mandated. In India, three sizes have been scientifically developed and fixed, but they have not been mandated. A shift away from solid bricks to hollow bricks would be more environmentally supportive. It would require mechanisation, bringing down job prospects by 90%.

To deal with the demographic implications, Tewari suggested an incremental approach of phase down and then phase out. The lack of a single point of contact or a nodal ministry to engage with the sector is a drawback here.

On December 15 last year, a gazette notification brought decades of confrontation between brick manufacturers and Ministry of Environment to a settlement. All units have to move to zig zag technology by 2025. It marks a transition from colonial-era technology to an industry contributing not just to a healthier national balance sheet, but hopefully also to the spirit of the Constitution, particularly Article 23.

(Vijayalakshmi Balakrishnan is a Tamil Nadu-based freelance journalist and a member of 101Reporters, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters)

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