For the past month, the Air Quality Index (AQI) of Punjab has oscillated between ‘poor’, ‘very poor’ and ‘severe’ levels, with burning of paddy stubble playing a major role in pollution. But last year, the AQI of Punjab in October and November had remained between ‘moderate’, ‘satisfactory’ and ‘good quality’, barring a few days around Diwali.
Experts said it was the result of non-operation of brick kilns during paddy harvesting months in the state last year.
On Friday, the National Green Tribunal had passed an order in Utkarsha Panwar versus Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) that 7,000 brick kilns including those with new zig-zag technology in the NCR must be closed till the end of February 2020, or till the level of pollution comes down. The order says even new technology adds to PM 2.5 levels. The CPCB was asked to submit a scientific report about the impact of kilns by December 15.
So how do brick kilns play a role in increasing pollution? ANJU AGNIHOTRI CHABA explains:
How does a brick kiln work?
A brick kiln is usually 120 ft high (part of which is under the earth). It has a 100 ft chimney and a space which is around 12 ft high, 32 ft in length and 10 ft in breadth, where the bricks are placed. In this space, there are around 36 chambers in which 13 lakh clay bricks are placed for drying or hardening, for which around 234-250 tonnes of coal (old technology) and 130-156 tonnes (new technology) are needed for a single operation, which continues for a month 24x7. Every kiln is operated 5-6 times a year. In new technology, 5 per cent ash is left after burning coal, while in old technology, 15 per cent ash is generated.
Nearly 200 to 250 people are dependent on each kiln for a living.
How many kilns does Punjab have?
There are around 3,000 kilns, of which 2,820 are operative. Till date, around 1,800 kilns have been upgraded. Around 25 per cent (750) kilns are located in Sangrur and Ludhiana districts. Several kilns with old technology are being run under political patronage and most of them are owned by political leaders.
Hoshiarpur and Sangrur are the only districts where 97 per cent kilns have already adopted the new technology called ‘induced draft technology with zig zag firing’. Shiv Walia, vice-president of the Punjab Brick Kiln Owner Association’s Hoshiarpur district unit, said, “The new technology kilns are highly efficient. It costs Rs 15-20 lakh to replace the old technology with the new. If kilns are not run during winter months from October to December, it can prevent the pollution generated by burning of around 16 lakh tonnes coal. During summer and spring, the winds are quite fast and gases do not stay in one place like winters.
From where are these kilns getting coal?
Most of the coal used by brick kilns in Punjab is imported from the USA. This carries a high amount of sulphur and is more harmful. It is cheaper than Indian coal, costing Rs 10,000 per tonne as compared to Indian coal which costs around Rs 13,000 per tonne.
A senior officer in the PPCB said 5-6 ships with a capacity of 1.5 lakh tonnes of coal come from the USA every month. “Indian coal carries less sulphur and the government should control its rate so that kilns can use it, thereby creating less pollution,” said a kiln owner in Sangrur.
How much pollution does a kiln create in a single operation?
According to the science and technology department, if a kiln runs on the old technology, its emission levels are 500 to 1500 mg/Nm3 (carbon, sulphur and several other harmful metals in the air). Meanwhile, an upgraded brick kiln’s emission levels were found to be in the range of 105 to 195 mg/Nm3, and it can check particulate matter in air upto 70%:
“We should stop operation of all kilns during these months because pollution cannot be 100 per cent checked even after adopting new technology, which is also creating pollution, though much lesser in quantity as compared to old ones,” said a PPCB official.
Can operation of brick kilns be stopped for 2-3 months during paddy harvesting period in Punjab without harming the interests of kiln owners?
In 2018, the Punjab Pollution Control Board (PPCB) had ordered halting the operations of brick kilns from October 1 to January 2019 to check air pollution during the winter months in Punjab. In December last year, the department of science and technology and environment, Punjab, on the directions of the NGT had allowed operation of kilns which had been upgraded to new technology and certified by the science and technology department.
“Most of the time, there was satisfactory to good AQI in October and November last year following the closure of kilns,” said a senior PPCB officer.
A senior officer in the department of food and civil supplies said there is hardly any kiln in Punjab which runs beyond a period of six months on an average in a year. “The Punjab government can regulate the operation period of kilns strictly by taking kiln owners into confidence through a policy under which kiln operation should be banned from October to December months,” said a senior officer in the science and technology department, adding that there is no point in adding to air pollution by running these during those months when stubble burning is already contributing to it. “Kiln owner should also have a responsibility towards the environment as they also know it will not harm them at any cost,” he added.
Is there any order for kilns this year too?
No, there is no order about their closure this year. The department of science and technology and environment had in a written direction in May this year said that no conventional brick kiln shall be allowed to operate beyond September 30, 2019 (which is the period when paddy harvesting starts in Punjab), and the kiln which are continuing to operate with old technology and are in process of conversion or yet to start such conversion are required to pay environmental compensation with effect from January 1, 2019, till adoption of new technology at the rate of Rs 25,000 and Rs 20,000 per month for kiln of capacity equal to or more that 30,000 bricks per day and capacity less than 30,000 bricks per day, respectively.
“But how can compensation help control the damage to pollution if old kilns continue to operate,” asked a PPCB member, adding that most such kilns, which should not run after September 30, are running openly right under their nose.