Bricks and Change

Published in Dawn on October 14, 2018.

The recent debate on brick kilns as a site of pollution, spurred by the Environment Protection Department (EPD) Punjab’s decision to close down the kilns during winter for 70 days, brings in to focus an aspect other than bonded labour generally associated with brick kilns. Based on a technology (Fixed Chimney Bull’s Trench Kiln, or FCBTK) as old as 1876, an estimated 11,500 brick kilns in Pakistan are run on coal and bonded labour. The pollution caused by their high emissions of black carbon from coal burning is linked with asthma, cancer, heart and lung ailments, posing risks for more than one million bonded labour involved in brick making. It is also leads to the smog impacting the cities. Considering the fact that we are a nation that hankers for ‘change’ yet resists it, it surprises no one that in this sector there is resistance to change in both technology and its exploitative labour relations.

Let us stick to technology, FCBTK. It has many issues: high air pollutant emissions, incomplete combustion, higher consumption of coal and only 60 per cent production of good quality bricks. In comparison, Zigzag technology, which is just an improvement on FCBTK, consumes less energy, emits less pollutants and produces 80pc good quality bricks. Old kilns can be retrofitted in to Zigzag kilns in about three months and require moderate investment (Rs20-30 lakhs) depending on the kiln’s size. The sad fact, however, is that neither FCBTK nor Zigzag technology comply with ILO standards on occupational health and safety for workers.

It all started when Pakistan joined the Climate and Clean Air Coalition (CCAC) in 2016 and became a focus country for a project on brick production. The Coalition, with a secretariat hosted by UN Environmental Programme in Paris, is a voluntary partnership of governments, businesses, scientific institutions and civil society organisations with over 120 state and non-state partners and hundreds of local actors. Concerned by winter smog, the EPD Punjab and the National Energy Efficient Conversation Authority decided to introduce cost effective and scalable Zigzag kiln technology.

The sector must adapt to serve the larger interests of society.

Supported by the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), the EDP Punjab partnered with the Pakistan Brick Kiln Owners’ Association and set the ball rolling. According to the association, two Zigzag brick kilns are now operational while 25 kilns are in the process of being retrofitted. It is going to be a slow process because “the government is not helping the brick kiln owners in any manner to acquire improved technology,” president of PBKOA, Shoaib Khan Niazi, tells this scribe. Technical support and loans are a far cry: those who want to switch technology have to run from pillar to post to get electricity connections, even after paying bribes. Zigzag kilns require reliable electricity supply to operate.

The problem surfaced when the EDP Punjab apparently took a unilateral decision and issued an order to shut down brick kilns from Oct 20. The price of bricks was hiked up by the owners as demand rose in anticipation of the shutdown. A 70-day shutdown is not required, concede both brick kiln owners’ and workers’ representatives, because the smog season lasts five to seven days. The brick kiln owners are willing to cooperate with government, ready to close the kilns during smog season.

Resistance to social change, such as abolition of bonded labour, is much stronger than resistance to technological change, due to different power dynamics and stakes involved to maintain the status quo. Technological change is swifter and inevitable. It is better to improvise, adopt or adapt and make it to serve the larger interests of society. The government needs to consult with all stakeholders, inclusive of labour, before taking drastic measures, particularly when it concerns a problematic and labour intensive sector as modern slavery-afflicted brick kilns industry.

The government needs to come up with a coherent strategy to convert 11,500 brick kilns in to cleaner technology. This should be done in consultation with brick kiln owners and workers’ representatives, environment and technical experts. Partnership with international institutions, such as CCAC and ICIMOD, should be strengthened further. Brick kiln owners should be enabled to access loans if required. Technical support can be solicited from national scientific and technology institutions and universities. Workers should be trained in new technology and their interests (ie wages, shelter, access to basic necessities) safeguarded during periods of conversion. The process of converting old brick kilns to Zigzag technology needs to be monitored for compliance and enforcement by an expert committee at the district level. Training seminars and exposure visits for entrepreneurs and manpower should be regularly organised.

View this article on Dawn’s website.

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