Every winter, more than 140 million Indians are exposed to severe air pollution when the AQI crosses the hazardous mark of 300. Source apportionment studies reveal that the brick manufacturing sector contributes to 8% of Delhi/NCR’s air pollution, which is nearly a quarter of the total pollution contributed by industrial emissions.
Brick manufacturing units, or brick kilns, also cause soil degradation and groundwater depletion around their locations. Some of them also employ bonded labour, child labour and the ultra-poor. About 1.5 crore labourers work in extreme conditions in brick kilns across India. They were one of the segments of informal workers that were severely affected during the COVID-19 pandemic.
These multiple problems encouraged us to identify brick kilns hotspots where myriad social and environmental challenges intersect. The research paper ‘Slavery from Space’ from the University of Nottingham showcased a novel approach of using geospatial technologies and artificial intelligence to detect the exact locations of brick kilns using satellite imagery. We connected with the University and teamed up with researchers from Rights Lab who are focussed on creating impact through research to help us identify such air pollution hotspots in India.
Journey from Innovation to Impact
After the research identified 47,000 precise locations of brick kilns, we had multi-stakeholder consultations with government agencies and civil society in Bihar, Haryana, Punjab and Rajasthan. Though identification through research is an important first step, regulatory challenges around brick kilns still needed to be addressed. But, the environment and labour regulators in these states mentioned that they were severely understaffed and required a more targeted approach. This is where the GeoAI Platform came in.
Adding New Value
The GeoAI platform demonstrated how environmental non-compliance can be detected from space using artificial intelligence. It significantly reduces the humongous task and investments required to regulate each and every industrial unit in India.
For instance, the challenge of monitoring about 9,000 brick kilns in Bihar was brought down to less than 1,000. It is a novel approach for improving regulatory governance in India. The GeoAI platform brings together coordinated action from diverse stakeholders – regulators, government agencies, civil society, and volunteer groups to tackle the complexity around brick kilns.
Context-specific sensitivity is also being introduced to address non-compliance by some of the brick kilns. This is especially important during COVID times as abrupt closing down of non-complaint brick kilns impacts livelihoods of thousands of people working there.
Industry meets, capacity building and facilitating transition to clean tech through affordable finance along with regulations are some of the potential development pathways we are planning for non-compliant brick kilns.
The fuel used in brick kilns is a matter of concern too. Poor quality coal, pet coke, plastic waste and even tyres are used as input fuel to reduce the cost of production, which result in dire public health consequences.
A different question emerged from this field insight: Can biofuels from crop residue (an important pollution source) be used as an alternative in the brick kiln industry?
Designed using principles of a circular economy, we are rolling out this experiment in partnership with a start-up A2P Pvt Ltd. If successful, it could simultaneously reduce emissions from both the burning of crop residue as well as brick kiln industries. Watch this space for more updates!
Many labourers working at brick kilns neither have access to government social security schemes nor receive minimum wages or have decent worksite conditions. In some cases, they don’t even have access to their own identity cards.
Experimenting and Growing Simultaneously
During this period, the lab designed digital prototypes and explored partnerships in multiple states. After elaborate discussions, regulators in Punjab and Bihar recently came on board. While Punjab is rolling out the GeoAI platform in one district, Bihar’s Pollution Control Board is going for a state-wide roll out in almost 9,000 brick kilns.
The brick manufacturing industry may probably die out in India within the next two decades as modern construction moves more towards monolithic concrete and prefabricated constructions. Environmental agencies are meanwhile promoting replacement of clay bricks with non-fired fly-ash bricks produced from fly ash, sand, lime, gypsum and cement. While the demand from construction industry will change at its own pace, India still needs to accelerate finding solutions for the social and environmental challenges around brick kilns.
The authors are:
Ms. Swetha Kolluri is Head of Experimentation, Accelerator Lab UNDP India
Ms. Rozita Singh is Head of Solutions Mapping, Accelerator Lab UNDP India
Dr. Krishnan S Raghavan is Head of Exploration, Accelerator Lab UNDP India
The UNDP Accelerator Lab in India is part of the world’s largest and fastest learning network working with development challenges. Globally it was launched in 2019 with over 60 Lab teams covering 78 countries. The founding investors of the Accelerator lab are the Qatar Fund for Development (QFFD) and the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development of Germany. The network taps into local innovations to create actionable insights and reimagine sustainable development for the 21st century. The network is expanding and soon there will be 90 labs covering 114 countries.