We are so constrained a people, situationally and conditionally, that we tend to ignore many implied ills for a single apparent gain. Such an issue is the ever-expanding “brick-making industry”, given the fact that brick appears to be an essential item in this era of urbanisation and industrialisation. But, unfortunately, many consequential problems have arisen for not having any effective precautionary measure to contain establishment of illegal brick kilns and use of firewood as fuel, check loss of cropland and top soil, and stop hill cutting.

The present government in the last four years has been able to show that they have a level of concern for degraded environment, especially air and water pollution, and wish to fight the adverse impact of climate change.

Brickfields like necklace for Dhakai people

Relocation of industries a must to make Dhaka City liveable

Business, protection of environment equally important

Save Savar from further environmental degradation

A Brick Wall in Change

Expediting clean environment movement

Making brick kilns emission efficient

Checking Air Pollution: Enforcement of rules imperative

But the reality gives us a discouraging picture of the government machinery and the businessmen involved. Even though the related law came into force in 1989 and was later amended in 2001 — under which the government issues clearance to the businessmen the regulator, Department of Environment (DoE), is yet to ascertain the total number of brickfields operating in the country. The association of the brickfield owners claim the number to be around 8,000 but environmentalists say it would be no less than 15,000 — given the fact that over half of those are unauthorised and thus illegal. The number is, however, estimated to be over 500 in the western side of Dhaka — stretching from Basila to Ashulia via Aminbazar.

Moreover, in Dhaka, where the government has its head offices of different regulatory bodies, the number of functional brickfields is also unknown. Anyone from a high-rise in the capital’s western front will easily be able to witness the ‘bravery’ of the unscrupulous brick kiln owners: They have installed their plants in gross violation of the related laws and also ignore or bypass the enforcement order of the DoE officials since most of them perhaps have connection with political leaders and may have allegedly greased officials in different bodies including the district administration which issues the licences after scrutinising DoE clearance and other prerequisites.

A senior official of the DoE has recently written an article in a national newspaper on the sprawling brickfields. He, however, held the district administration responsible for the “menace”, and apparently, urged the officials to work sincerely and go tough against the violators to prevent further illegal expansion. The article clearly states the non-coordination trend in the government departments which is obviously frustrating for the people directly affected by the adverse impacts of the carbon-spewing brickfields.

Concern is there for any locality near the brickfields, but the situation in Dhaka is the worst due to high density of population. The capital, however, was supposed to be in the best shape because of having all departmental headquarters, including that of the law enforcers.

Instead these highly black smoke-emitting conventional brick kilns are polluting the air of Dhaka and the surrounding areas. A World Bank study says the conventional Fixed Chimney Kilns (FCK) contribute for up to 20 percent of the total premature mortality caused by urban air pollution in Dhaka (all causes combined). The Bangladesh Country Environmental Analysis reports that poor air quality in Dhaka contributed to an estimated 3,500 premature deaths in 2002 (World Bank 2006). Emissions of particulate matters from this kiln cluster are responsible for 750 premature deaths annually.

According to a recent global survey, Bangladesh ranked 131st among 132 countries in controlling air pollution with regard to its effect on human health. India holds the very last position.

And, now in this dry season, the brick makers are operating the kilns uninterrupted and releasing excess smoke and dust in the air. It is aggravating the pollution further.

Apart from the capital’s western fringe, such illegal brick kilns are also present beside different highways, rivers and canals and even on croplands. The law stipulates that licences would be issued for brickfields being set up three kilometres away from human habitats, city corporation, municipalities, forests and orchards, reserved areas, eco-parks, and the state’s important establishments.

The brickfields near Dhaka have been operating for years despite being within 50 feet of the highway and rivers Buriganga and Turag. And whatever the laws say, they are doing fine and the number is ever increasing. Only a few owners are using coal instead of wood and rubber tyres and lesser number of them emission-efficient chimneys.

According to the existing law regarding burning bricks, the unauthorised kilns must be removed, while licences of kilns burning wood to be cancelled. Moreover, the violators can be jailed for one year or fined Tk 50,000 or both. The officials concerned can also fine those kilns which are not emission-efficient.

Comparatively, the DoE has now been more active than in past years. But the irony is that the number of brickfields using conventional methods has been increasing, and obviously, those are being set up illegally.

There has been no revision in the law to make stricter the process of acquiring licences and raising the ceiling of penalty for running brickfields illegally and emitting black smoke.

The low-profile DoE’s monitoring and enforcement teams are still insufficient to cover 64 districts. It is shocking to see these days that brick kilns are being set up in croplands in the rural areas by putting at risk people’s health, damaging top soil, at places cutting hills, felling trees and creating noise. But because of the shortage in manpower and logistics, the drives against the profit-mongers are yet to be satisfactory.

The most frustrating thing in the brick-making industry is the indecision over selecting and promoting an appropriate method to cut pollution. The government now advocates mainly for Improved Zigzag Kiln (IZigzag), while the other widely accepted methods are Improved Fixed Chimney Kiln (IFCK), Vertical Shaft Brick Kiln (VSBK) and Hybrid Hoffman Kiln (HHK). These technologies are substantially cleaner, consuming less energy and emitting lower levels of pollutants and greenhouse gases, the WB study says. In most of the methods, other than in HHK, coal is used as fuel to burn bricks.

For replacement of the old and traditional FCK brick kilns with new versions, the DoE had stopped renewal of licences for new brickfields in October 2010 for two years and ordered that the existing brick kilns be replaced by the time.

But because of poor campaign, reluctance of the officials concerned and high cost of switching to new technology, owners of conventional brickfields expressed their unwillingness. Well, they have recently been given again an extension of six months to convert to the new methods.

According to the finance minister’s budget speech, only 500 brick kilns were converted to efficient methods until June 2012.

The government must see the fresh extension does not frustrate us in matter of ensuring clean environment; it is “better late than never”. However, the plans centring the brick-making industry must be rational and futuristic.

Published in The Daily Star on November 24, 2012