A bird’s eye view into the current brick industry practices in India. This article explores India’s tryst with brick-making, current circularities, present and future ramifications and alternative solutions in the market today.
As a privileged person in India, your direct exposure to bricks may be more through metaphors than a hands-on interaction. To drop a brick, for example, may sting with embarrassment but only the abstract kind.
Time to take a bit of a reality check — bricks are everywhere around us, in our walls, besides our roads. Lakhs of bricks across India are weighing down the heads, backs and shoulders of Indian men, women and their children as you read this article. The harmful by-product of brick kilns are emissions we breathe. Given the global climate crisis, the extent to which the brick industry in India will pivot towards sustainability will play a crucial role in preventing our building practices from burying us alive.
The Evolution of Bricks
With their origins laid down in 7000 BC, bricks are one of the oldest known building materials. These quintessential building blocks constructed from dried clay and straw first emerged from the wombs of Ancient Egypt and Mohenjo-Daro. The practice of fired or heated/baked bricks began much later in around 3500 BC, with the Romans dispersing red clay kiln-fired bricks across Europe.
Indigenous to India, Lakhori, Kakaiya or, Nanak shahi  bricks were thin, red, burnt-clay specimens that were very popular till the times of Shah Jahan (think forts, palaces, bastions, havelis and step-wells ). The dynamic Lakhori and an aggregate called "surkhi"—a mix of lime, water and powdered brick) were often used together.
However, exposure to the West affected Indian architectural practices as well. While the Germans and Portuguese introduced their building styles into South India, the British introduced the larger ghumma brick variant to India and the then-innovative continuous brick firing design of Bull's Trench Kilns (BTKs) in 1873. BTKs are still around today because they need low capital investment, generating high returns . So the next time you go travelling anywhere in rural and semi-urban India, you will understand what the long cylindrical structures spewing black smoke across the scenery are.
Current Practice: Circular or Not?
In 2014, BBC News covered the situation of brick kiln workers in Andhra Pradesh: The air is acrid with coal soot. Men and women walk in a single file. They strain under a load, balanced in yoke-like hods, to deliver freshly moulded bricks to the furnace. Down below, knee-deep in water, their clothes ragged, workers hack at clay in a wet pit…nearby, there is a mound of coal. Women and children squat at the edge. Most are barefoot…two children, barely four years old, their faces smeared black, break coal by hitting pieces against each other .
This pathetic state of affairs does not have to exist. And while it is true that brick-making machines rob workers of their livelihoods, an optimum balance of both man and machine could be the answer.
In December 2021, Malba Project visited a brick kiln in the outskirts of Bangalore. One of the few Hindi-speaking migrant labourers there was a man from Bihar.
When we asked him where clay for the bricks comes from, he told us that the kiln is built strategically near a lake. Clayey soil is often pulled from lakes or rivers to provide the raw material for the kiln. This practice is devastating for the water bodies. When asked what they would do once the clay from the lake ran out, the labourer innocently replied,
"Yahaan pe toh bohot talaab hain. Yeh walah khatam ho jaye, toh hum dusre talaab par lag jayenge." (There are many lakes here. When this one is depleted, we will go to the next one.) Brick Kiln Worker
The clayey soil plundered from these lakes is mixed into a light-brown, water-based dough and then put into a mould. Once formed, the bricks dry for up to two weeks before being kiln-fired. Firing makes bricks more weather-resistant while also giving them their characteristic red colour.
"The unbaked bricks are stacked inside an enlarged firing chamber for over 24 hours until they are baked and ready to be removed" says Shamita Chaudhary, the founder of Malba Project.
Kiln-firing emits harmful by-products like particulate matter, dolochar (coal leftover after burning), CO2 and black carbon. Over 600 million tonnes of excavated clay (equivalent to 50 days worth of waste generated in Delhi) annually supplies the raw material for the bricks, leaving a scarred landscape devoid of an essential ingredient (clay) for agriculture and food production.
Ironically, we found that the kiln was being quite conservative and circular when it came to aspects of the firing process. Vast amounts of coconut husk, the waste from local coconut consumption, is used as a fire-starter for the kiln. An exhaust fan had been repaired and put to innovative use to cool the fired bricks down.
The intent to make the most of the scarce resources at hand is a skill that one can find even in the tiniest nook and cranny of the Indian subcontinent. However, when the effort is a part of a largely polluting industry, these micro-circularity initiatives seem to get nullified.
Innovation in the Field
There lies a vast gap between the contribution of the brick industry to the Indian economy and India's responsibility as an eminent world player in the quest for climate action. This gap is slowly but surely being filled with innovation for greener brick and kiln alternatives that look like they may be here to stay.
Organisations such as Auroville Earth Institute are building inroads toward a greener brick industry through ground-restoring research into traditional and interlocking building techniques involving rammed and compressed earth bricks, blocks and walls. These prototypes have received approval for safety, functionality and durability and are viable for building up to 3 storey-high, disaster-proof structures. Some other innovations that are paving the way are:
EcoKilns - 70% of the kilns in India are clamp kilns , a type of handmade brick oven. Each type of kiln has its pros and cons, but circularity is also a continuum across time. Kilns like FC-BTKs and clamp kilns are obsolete and should have been pushed out of practice eons ago and replaced as the Centre for Science Environment recommends, by more fuel-efficient and less toxic Zig-Zag Kilns. Vertical-shaft Kilns also have their proponents . More recently, EcoKilns have proven their immense potential for shifting the industry towards a brighter future.
Fly Ash Bricks - Since 2003 the government has advocated replacing a percentage of clay in every brick with a portion of fly-ash, a by-product of thermal power plants (TPPs), of which India has 250 . This proposal could lead to dedicated fly-ash kilns that create rehabilitative jobs for workers. However, fly-ash is only a short-term solution as it is a by-product of coal, a fossil fuel that we hope India will phase out soon. Moreover, the best quality fly-ash is diverted to the cement industry, leaving behind a product of variable quality in a quantity that is only enough to supply one-third of the bricks generated by the industry. This output can support neither the building industry nor the livelihoods that depend upon it.
Adobe - A type of brick that stands out as the result of a time capsule technique that hearkens back to the building practices of ancient Syria is the adobe (rammed earth) brick . These bricks are moulded using straw as a binder and then dried in the sun before use. In India, Chitradurga in Karnataka holds specimens of adobe bricks from the 15th century. Adobe bricks are ideal for areas with composite climates and average rainfall like Ladakh, where these bricks are widespread.
CSEBs - Cement Stabilised Composite Earth Blocks (CSEBs) are compressed earth blocks strengthened by cement and mortar. They emit 7.9 times less CO2 than rurally fired bricks, bio-degrade after 20 years, and can be locally sourced. CSEBs are highly adaptable, require semi-skills and have flexible production processes without compromising structural safety and resistance. 
The Future of Bricks
An added incentive is that converting to greener production systems can also reduce up to 2.8 million tonnes of CO2 emissions whilst creating jobs for 0.35 million people . But no one law or ban will overturn the industry overnight.
The change will have to be scaled systemically. Startups across India can jump on board to fill the gap in the market to meet our environmentally-conscious consumer demands. The onus here lies on us. We must decide and actively begin looking beyond the four walls of our narrow and comfortable perspectives (that more often than not, choose accessibility over ethics) and turn towards greener alternatives.
Innovations such as Wricks, Ecobrick pave the way for a more sustainable building block for the Indian landscape. So now you know that a brick is never just another brick in the wall. It is so much more. Perhaps our solutions for the future lie in the past, but it is high time we all began pulling our weight.
To the average consumer looking to manage renovations sustainably, all we can say is, seek and ye shall find.
Base Image Source: NBM&CW Magazine Edit: Malba Project
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