Increasing revs or decreasing speed? The million-dollar question in the brick industry has many implications

Brick sector:- India is the second largest brick producer in the world they also constitute a small but significant export for the country. Officially, 35 million tons of coal and 25 million tons of biomass are used to produce bricks in the country. Although there is no complete data on coal consumption in this highly unorganized industry, the use of biomass fuels is not officially recorded because they are sourced locally.

IIT Bombay study published in Nature last year, covering 150 districts, energy consumption in this sector was found to be 100 times higher than what India reported in its official report to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Says Dr. Sameer Maithel, one of the authors of the study 101Reporters that the dissonance may result from the specificity of the UNFCCC reporting requirements.

In its biennial report to the UNFCCC, the Government of India showed a declining trend in coal consumption in the brick sector, citing data from the annual publication Energy statistics. When we graphically present coal consumption, bricks constitute only a small part of the total. As a result, Energy statistics showed 0% coal consumption in brick production on the chart for 2022 and 2023.

“Back in the 1980s, the clay fields were the second or third largest consumer of coal in the country,” Maithel says. Forty years later, brick production is the third largest consumer of coal in the country.

The production of bricks requires 990 petajoules of energy, which is over 60% of the energy needed to produce steel (1,400 petajoules) and about 80% more than cement (550 petajoules). “We found a large underestimation of current official energy consumption estimates, with actual energy consumption comparable to that of the country’s steel and cement industries,” the study said. Reason: The brick sector is less regulated and fragmented.

Brick production is essential in construction. “Maximum growth in construction is expected in rural India where kitchen (mud) houses give way Pucca (brick) houses,” notes J John, former executive director of the Center for Education and Communication.

Bricks production reached 52,000. tone in January 2012, and it was estimated that demand would increase by at least 6% and reach 500 billion bricks per year by 2030. However, demonetization in 2016 resulted in a decline in the collection of manufactured bricks by as much as 75%. Then in 2017 came the introduction of the Goods and Services Tax, which led to a strike by brick manufacturers. The next event was the COVID-19 lockdowns in 2020.

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

Post demonetisation, Goods and Services Tax, brick manufacturers’ strike and COVID-19 lockdown, the sector is recovering

Between 225 and 250 billion bricks are produced annually, or about 125 bricks per Indian, and most of them are produced in ways that are hazardous to human health and the planet. Demand is expected to quadruple over the next decade.

The key factors that determine energy consumption are furnace technology, production capacity and the type of fuel used (coal, biomass, fly ash and pipelined natural gas). Following the enactment of the Environment (Protection) Act 1986, attempts were made to regulate energy consumption in brick kilns, but with limited success. Over the past two decades, brick production has been of strategic importance to international efforts to curb global warming, and India’s performance has come under scrutiny.

There have always been low barriers for brick and mortar entrepreneurs. Janta Bricks owner Anant Nath Singh launched his stack or haath bhata in southern 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, making the investment return within a year. Change has been continuous over the past 50 years, but has accelerated since the 1990s.

“We have to accept scientific progress and move with the times,” says Singh 101Reporters, narrating how he switched to Fixed Chimney Bull Trench Kiln (FCBTK) in 2001 with an investment of Rs 25 lakh. It has also expanded its production capacity to around 30 lakh bricks per annum.

In 2018, when regulations were tightened, it invested an additional Rs 50 lakh to switch to zigzag, which reduced coal consumption from 20 to 12 tonnes for the production of one lakh bricks. It is worth noting that this investment paid off in less than two years.

The owner of Bharat Bricks, Jalal Khan, 50, started in the industry as a worker on mobile chimneys and chimney stoves at the age of 12 before becoming a contractor. In 2012, he set up the FCBTK unit in Mathura district of Uttar Pradesh with an investment of Rs 50 lakh. It switched to zigzag in 2021 and expects to recoup its investment by this year.

Manufacturers are willing to invest because it helps them reduce production costs. “In 2014, no zigzag technology was used in any kiln in Bihar. Currently, over 80% of the 8,000 stoves have been converted to it. The conversion costs are around Rs 40 lakh. All these resources are found and invested by entrepreneurs themselves,” says Maithel.

The migrant is alive

About two billion people work in nearly 1.50 million brick kilns across the country. Nearly 60% of these brick kilns are located in the Indo-Gangetic belt. In the kilns, whole families work vigorously, shaping clay, mixing earth, binding, filling, stacking, moving, firing and re-stacking bricks.

“Around the world, the pressure on work has decreased while environmental awareness has increased,” explains John, a long-time advocate of kiln workers’ rights. He says that a decade ago, about 5% of the Indian labor force employed between 50,000 and one lakh stoves (NSSO, 2011-2012). Both numbers may have already increased significantly.

According to government data from February last year, there are around 1.40 lakh registered and unregistered brick kilns in the country. Employees are the poorest and most indebted. As seasonal migrants, they most likely do not have access to social security systems. In the last decade, efforts have been made to include them in the public distribution system and other government programs through registration on the e-Shram portal.

Anant Nath Singh, also president of Jharkhand Brick Association, says there was no shortage of skilled workers earlier. “In Bihar paatla (molding) was a traditional occupation. For decades, families have preferred educating their children because it will lead them to other careers.”

While Sandhya* (23) from Bihar works in a brick kiln in Uttar Pradesh, her three-year-old daughter is cared for at an on-site day care center run by a non-profit organization. Over the phone, Sandhya says that once every eight days, she and her husband get a total of Rs 100 a day to cover their expenses. They also received an advance payment of Rs 15,000. Despite their hard work, they expect to return home in May with only twice that amount.

Majboori, hey,” he says, because there are few opportunities to work at home. The couple worked on farms and received only rice as compensation. Sandhya is clear that once her child reaches school age, she will not travel for work. “Uska bhavishya dekhna hai (we need to prioritize her future),” she adds.

The future she has planned is in stark contrast to the experiences of Purshottam* (27) from a village in Gaya. As a child, he began traveling with his parents to work in brickyards. Although his memory is hazy, Purshottam estimates that he was 12 years old when he started making bricks.

Since the calculations are done at the end of the season, there is usually no idea what amount he will take home with. In good times, after deductions for amenities provided (e.g. a blanket), this will be double or triple the advance payment you receive.

However, Jalal says a couple can earn between Rs 2 lakh and Rs 3 lakh after deducting all expenses, provided they work continuously.

Manoj* from Nawada has been working at the kiln for four to five years. When asked about alternative employment, he has no idea. He obviously hadn’t thought about it.

Negative perception

AK Tewari, president of the All India Brick and Tile Manufacturers Federation, says 101Reporters that the brick sector is perceived negatively. He attributes this to “air pollution, irresponsible mining and illegal employment.” At the national level, air pollution has taken maximum mental space, and at the global level, illegal employment, known as slavery.

This perception does not take into account changes made at the individual level. India has had a law in place since 1981 to prevent and control air pollution. Furnace emissions are higher during the three peak winter months when wind speeds are lower and particulate matter tends to become airborne.

Administrative and political concern about air pollution gained momentum in 1996, when the Supreme Court ordered the closure of furnaces equipped with moving stack technology. At that time, the suspended particulate matter (SPM) content exceeded 2000 mg/Nm3. Continuous efforts have brought this figure down to triple digits, with demand at less than 250 mg/Nm3 per stack. Even during the peak winter months, SPM currently remains at 750–500 mg/Nm3. However, this progress has never been recognized, notes Tewari.

The solutions exist and are not difficult to implement. Maithel suggests that the focus needs to shift from national or state-level politics to engaging with the Indo-Gangetic belt as a region.

Tewari suggests focusing on standardizing brick sizes. In Great Britain, from where the ubiquitous kiln design was adapted, the size of the bricks is fixed and mandatory. In India, three sizes have been scientifically developed and established, but they are not mandatory. Moving away from solid bricks to hollow bricks would be more environmentally friendly. This would require mechanization, which would reduce job prospects by 90%.

To deal with the demographic consequences, Tewari suggests a phased-in, phase-out approach. The disadvantage here is the lack of a single point of contact or nodal ministry to engage with the sector.

On December 15 last year, an advertisement in the newspaper led to a settlement of the decades-long confrontation between brick manufacturers and the Ministry of the Environment. All units must migrate to zigzag technology by 2025. This marks a transition from colonial-era technology to an industry contributing not only to a healthier national balance sheet, but hopefully also to the spirit of the Constitution, in particular Article 23.