BUDGAM: With no concern for the life and health of labourers, many of them children, nor for the people and environment all around, more than 260 brick kilns in Budgam are going about their business with utter, callous, and criminal disregard of every law and every inhabitant of the land, which they have turned as barren as the air that they have turned poisonous.
Of the nearly 300 brick kilns operating in Kashmir valley, more than 260 are located in Budgam district alone. “All of them are operating illegally, without any mandatory clearance from the state pollution control board. They are posing a serious threat to the natural ecology,” said Syed Nadeem Hussain, Chairman of the State Pollution Control Board (SPCB), of these kilns.
Besides violating pollution norms, the brick kiln operators are fearlessly violating labour laws by employing children and by exposing labourers to hazards not just to their health but also to their lives. There have been several instances of labourers falling into furnaces while working. There is no assessment of the respiratory diseases they have become afflicted with, or the damage they have suffered to their eyes, their skin, their limbs, to their general sense of well-being and mental health.
The black smoke billowing out from the hundreds of chimneys has affected human life all around, and the environment, the flora and fauna. People living near the brick kilns have become afflicted with deadly diseases like tuberculosis, hepatitis, lung cancer, urinary tract disorder, skin allergy, and infections in eyes.
These illegal brick kilns have acquired hundreds of thousands of hectares of fertile agricultural land and turned it all barren.
“The government agencies right from the tehsil level to the pollution control board watch mutely as such units sprout illegally, causing inconvenience to the local residents and to the natural environment,” said Hussain, the helpless chairman of the pollution control board.
“The deputy commissioners are still reluctant to act against them, because of political pressure and involvement of bureaucrats,” he said.
Officials said that it is not possible to close them the brick kilns because they were established some three-four decades ago after acquiring No Objection Certificate (NOC) from various departments.
“We are not in a position to close them down. Our main focus is to prevent the establishment of new brick kilns in the area,” officials in the deputy commissioner’s office said.
Hussain said that the State Pollution Control Board has laid down multiple guidelines for the establishment of brick kilns, but none of them have been followed and yet the brick kilns are operating with impunity.
“For example, according to the SPCB, the size of the particulate matter emitted out of the industry should be between 60-110 ppm, and the height of the chimney should be higher than 115 feet to ensure that harmful gases are released in the upper atmosphere and do not come in direct contact with the human population,” Hussain said.
He said that guidelines also stipulate that there should be at least three rows of broad-leaved evergreen trees around the periphery of each brick kiln, so as to reduce the range of dispersal of dust and smoke particles.
However, he said, none of these guidelines have been put into practice. “The board has issued notices hundreds and thousands of times, but all in vain,” Hussain said. “The district administration has always shown little interest in taking concrete steps to check the gross violation of rules by the brick kiln owners.”
Deputy Commissioner Budgam Syed Sehrish Asgar, when asked about the illegality of brick kilns in Budgam, shifted the responsibility to the Directorate of Food and Supplies in Budgam.
“This is not in my competence now. In 2017, new guidelines were made and according to them, the directorate has been authorised to check their registration and illegality,” Sehrish said.
“We are only the executing agency in this matter. The director of foods and supplies is the final authority,” she added.
Sehrish said that she had called a meeting in the coming days to discuss a way out of this menace. “We hope we will come up with a roadmap for the future,” she said.
The director of foods and supplies said he was busy with Muharram processions and could not speak on the issue at this time.
People who live around the brick kilns spoke out strongly against them. Al Tamash, a medical student, said that the thick smoke coming out of the chimneys hovered over the town in the morning as well as in the evening.
“This menace has been brought to the notice of higher officials repeatedly, but there seems to be a nexus between them (kiln owners and the administration),” he said.
“There is no plantation around the kilns and huge layers of dust settle down on crops, houses, everything. Nut nobody pays any heed,” he said. “The smoke and dust has adversely affected visibility, reduced growth of vegetation, and severely damaged the ecological balance. It has affected human health as well.”
Tamash said that the kiln workers work in precarious conditions and several workers have fallen into the furnace while working. “They even keep working in the scorching sun, while the chimneys churn out thick smoke containing soot,” he said.
Rashid Ali, a school teacher who lives near the brick kilns, said, “We have approached the authorities concerned hundreds of times, but they never paid heed to our pleas. Instead, they supported the kiln owners.”
He added, “Nothing has been done to stop this ecological vandalism.”
Talking to Kashmir Reader, Head of Department, Environmental Science, Kashmir University, Dr Shakeel Ramshoo said, “The big concern is that all the brick kilns are run on political considerations, and not on environment considerations. When you fly from Delhi to Srinagar or from any other area to Srinagar, you can see the vast landscapes dispersed with these brick kilns in Budgam district.”
Dr Ramshoo said that the coal used in baking the bricks is contributing heavily to the greenhouse effect. “When we talk of high concentration of particulate matter in the atmosphere, particularly during the autumn season in the valley, the main reason for it is the increasing number of unregulated and illegal brick kilns,” he said.
“It is crystal clear that these brick kilns increase the concentration of particulate matter in the atmosphere. The dust and soot emitted from these kilns does not remain confined around the kilns but the winds carry them along to all areas of the state,” he said.
He further said, “One can easily, and unknowingly, inhale these particulate matters which damage health and cause pulmonary diseases among humans and among animals as well.”
“There are technologies that if used can reduce the concentration of particulate matter in air to a great extent, but the authorities seems to be least bothered,” Dr Ramshoo added.
Another effect of the brick kilns, Dr Ramshoo pointed out, is the abrupt increase in land degradation in areas around them. “There are strict norms that one can’t dig the land beyond two to three feet, but the kiln owners dig the land up to 20, 30 feet. Then they abandon the land after some time, leaving it useless and barren,” he said.
The brick kilns have also damaged vegetation to a great extent, he said. “Like in Pampore, where the saffron produce has decreased because of the cement factories in the area, in Budgam the vegetation has been damaged because of the abundant number of brick kilns,” Dr Ramshoo said.