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  • Writer's pictureDe Boer Damle

Moving Towards Sustainability: Technology Options for the Indian Heavy Clay Industry



1.0 Technology Status of Brick Industry in India:


Although Ceramic Products like glazed tiles, crockery, sanitary ware, refractory bricks, technical ceramics, etc. are being made today with the most advanced / state-of the-art technologies in India, the state of brick making technology in the country is far from being satisfactory. Majority of the units still employ age-old hand-moulding, sun-drying and clamp / down-draught / Bull’s trench kiln burning methods. Use of roller crushers, extruders and Hoffmann kilns for brick making has remained restricted to the Mangalore-Thrissur South-Western coastal belt only, while use of fixed chimney Bull’s trench kilns and high-draught kilns with either ‘straight’ or ‘zigzag’ setting is mainly prevalent in the Northern, North-Eastern and some Southern States.


The first extruder – imported from Germany - was installed in India in 1865 at a place called Jeppu near Bengaluru. However, during the last 150 years or so, its spread to states other than Kerala, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu has remained very limited. The first Soft-mud Moulding machine was introduced in India in 1985 by National Building Organization (NBO), New Delhi, in collaboration with Mechanical Engineering Research & Development Organization (MERADO), Ludhiana. Together, they developed a prototype machine at MERADO’s R & D Laboratory at Ludhiana (Punjab), based on the design of ‘Hudson’ or ‘Berry’ machine imported from UK. During the first 2 decades, about 35-40 machines were manufactured and supplied by a lone manufacturer in Maharashtra, but most of them did not meet any commercial success due to ‘demoulding’ difficulties, low productivity and resulting high operational costs. However, it is only during the last decade or so that popularity of the machine has gained momentum in the country and a number of new fabricators/machinery manufacturers have entered the fray all over the country.


Disintegrators are regularly used in Gujarat state for dry grinding of clay. For preparing clay, pugmills – both animal-driven and power-driven – are in use in West Bengal and Uttar Pradesh since a very long time. Use of rotavator and cage wheel - simple agricultural implements attached to a tractor - is spreading fast in Central India and coastal regions of the East for mixing clay with flyash or rice husk ash.


First attempts to set up tunnel kilns based on indigenous technology made in the eighties in Kannur and Erode districts of Kerala and Tamil Nadu states, respectively, did not meet techno-commercial success. Thereafter, during the last 5 years or so, few more tunnel kilns have been built near Chandigarh, Delhi, Coimbatore and Thrissur which are now performing fairly well after undergoing a number of modifications from time to time. Of late, a few improved versions of fixed chimney / high-draught kilns (incorporating zig-zag brick setting to increase heat-transfer rates, decrease heat losses and contain pollution more effectively) have also been put to commercial use successfully.


Majority of the industry is still "unorganized" and very few units are registered with the Department of Industry as SSI (Small-Scale Industry) Units. Brick units are normally set up on leased lands near clay sources and water bodies. In most cases, temporary permissions for seasonal operation are obtained from local statutory bodies and these are renewed every year. Barring a few mechanized / semi-mechanized units in South India, all others employ piece-rate contract labour to carry out clay excavation, preparation, moulding, drying, firing and materials handling operations. “Moulders” perform all operations from clay winning to drying, while “setters”, "firemen" and "unloaders / stackers” take care of the kiln related jobs.


Present Technology Hierarchy:


There are more than 200,000 units in India which manufacture about 250 billion clay bricks and about 1 billion clay roof tiles. Their hierarchy - with respect to level of mechanization / technological advancement - is given below. At the top of the ‘technology pyramid’ is Wienerberger Brick Industry Pvt. Ltd. which has an installed capacity of 600 tons per day and a reported investment of about Rs. 2000 million (30 million Euros). It started its operation in India in April 2009. It took 3 years for Wienerberger to stabilize its production process and popularize its product in South India. It has now reached a stage where its order book appears full for the next 2 years. This has led it to decide to establish its second plant near Chennai for manufacturing hollow clay blocks.


2.0 Stakeholder Perception:


Brick manufacturers, brick consumers (market), Government (policymakers) and civil

society are the 4 main stakeholders who affect – and get affected by - the direction of transformation of the brick industry. Even though brick manufacturers in India are very large in number and spread widely all over the country, they are not organized, proactive and lack dynamic leadership. The omnipresent scarcity of resources and strong influence of traditional thought makes them resistant to change, even though the market and the Government want them to transform at a faster pace in the direction of sustainability.


Market Situation:


Brick, i.e. common burnt clay building brick, is perhaps the only man-made material that has defied time gracefully ever since it was invented some 5000 years ago. Unlike metals and organic materials, brick weathers beautifully with time, never giving in completely to the onslaught of natural agencies working against it. Also,it is an extremely good ‘nailable’, ‘sawable’ and thermally insulating material. Its special pore structure allows it to ‘breathe’ only air while stopping the passage of moisture. These unique attributes have been helping the brick to retain its No. 1 position (75 to 80 % market share) among all walling materials in India so far.


However, the situation is fast changing since the eighties. Majority of the present-day commercial and residential buildings in metros and big cities use RCC frame structures wherein building load is carried by column-beam structure and not by walls. Therefore, crushing strength – and consequent weight – of clay bricks is becoming less and less important. Lighter bricks are now preferred more by the market. Their dead-weight on buildings is lower resulting into savings in structural steel and consequent cost. They are also more insulating – both thermally as well as acoustically – which is an important consideration for a tropical country like India. Bricks are economically sold within a radius of about 50 kilometers. Due to seasonal nature of the brick industry, prices of bricks keep fluctuating throughout the year. They reach their maximum towards the end of rainy season, when stocks from the earlier season get exhausted and drop to their minimum in December / January when fresh production starts flooding the market. Also, over the years, the quality of bricks is not improving at all, in fact it is going down. Clay bricks cannot be produced on or near construction sites. For these very reasons, concrete blocks started replacing bricks in metros and big cities in the eighties. But they soon lost their charm on account of improper mixing and curing practices followed by manufacturers and their high density, poor ‘nailability’, water seepage resistance and insulating property. Their use mainly remained restricted to areas wherein poor insulating property was of little or no consequence, like compound walls, factory / commercial buildings, the so-called ‘low-cost’ housing schemes, etc.


However, since last decade, concrete blocks – solid as well as cellular – and AAC (Aerated Autoclaved Concrete) blocks are becoming popular. So much so that they have now toppled bricks from their No. 1 position in most metros and big cities. Demand for flyash-concrete products, cured FAL-G (Flyash-Lime-Gypsum) bricks and fired flyash-clay bricks is also on the rise.


Policy Interventions:


Important policy interventions that have affected the development of the Indian heavy

clay sector during the past 3 decades are listed below:


  • Regulation passed by the Ministry of Environment & Forests, New Delhi on 2nd April 1996 [Extraordinary Gazette Part II – Section 3 (i)] was the first Government intervention with far-reaching effects on the brick industry. It mandated immediate stopping of operation of Moving Chimney Bull’s Trench Kilns and prescribed emission standards and chimney heights for various capacities of brick units and made adoption of Fixed Chimney Kilns (with / without settling chambers) and other improved kilns compulsory. Use of at least 25 % w/w flyash as an ingredient of the raw-mix was also made compulsory for all brick manufacturers falling within 50 km radius of thermal power plants.

  • In addition, to conserve topsoil, the Ministry of Environment & Forests (MoEF), vide its Notification No.763 (A) dated 14th September 1999, notified that any construction activity falling within 100-kilometer radius of a coal / lignite-based thermal power plant will utilize at lease the following proportion of bricks / tiles made from fly ash (on volume basis):

- 25 percent till 31 August 2004

- 50 percent till 31 August 2005

- 75 percent till 31 August 2006

- 100 percent till 31 August 2007


In June 2009, Global Environment Facility (GEF) approved a project “Energy Efficiency Improvements in the Indian Brick Industry” for implementation through United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) with Ministry of Environment, Forest, and Climate Change (MoEFCC) as its Executive Agency. The project was aimed at promoting production and usage of Resource Efficient Bricks (REB’s) viz. perforated bricks, hollow blocks and flyash bricks in the country.

  • Then came the order of Hon. Supreme Court dated 27th February 2012 scrapping the distinction between ‘major’ and ‘minor’ minerals and lease areas below and above 5 hectares. It made Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) mandatory prior to getting lease rights for ‘brick earth’. This order hit the industry at its roots.


  • Very recently, on 25th February 2019, Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC), vide its Gazette Notification (Draft) dated 25th February 2019 directed all clay and flyash-clay brick/block/tile manufacturers falling within 300-kilometer radius of Thermal Power Plants to change over to flyash-based cured bricks/blocks/tiles within one year (i.e. by end-February 2020) or close shop and invited objections/suggestions on the said Notification within 60 days of date of the Notification (i.e. by end-April 2019). This was primarily being done to conserve precious topsoil used for brick/block/tile-making in India and to save our environment from air pollution caused by brick kilns. Since 300-kilometer radii of Thermal Power Plants covers almost all of India except parts of North-East and Jammu & Kashmir Regions, this Notification in effect meant closure of the existing clay brick/block/tile units by February 2020.

After receiving thousands of objections from various stakeholders, MoEFCC had to finally withdraw this Draft Notification on 7th July 2020 giving a big relief to the Indian heavy clay industry.


  • On 17th February 2021, National Green Tribunal (NGT), New Delhi ordered immediate closure of all coal-fired brick kilns – including ones with ‘zig-zag’ technology – within National Capital Region (NCR) unless they shift to Piped Natural Gas (PNG) as fuel.

  • BEE (Bereau of Energy Efficiency) – a statutory body under Ministry of Power - launched its Energy Efficiency Enterprises (E3) Certification Scheme for the Clay Brick Sector in India on 12th March 2021. The E3 Scheme is a voluntary certification awarded by the BEE and is intended to recognize clay brick manufacturers with energy use below defined thresholds. The E3 Scheme is intended to improve energy efficiency of the Indian Brick Sector through technological and product innovations as a part of its “National Brick Industry Mission”. Under BEE’s proposed strategy, brick manufacturers who adopt energy-efficient manufacturing processes will be awarded E3 mark. Market awareness for the E3 mark will be generated by BEE to encourage sourcing of bricks from manufacturing units having the mark. Overall, BEE’s market transformation strategy is expected to reduce energy, clay, water use and waste per unit of production.

From the above, one can clearly observe market and policy preference for technologies that achieve:


  • Consistent and high-quality products

  • Larger and lighter formats

  • All-the-year-round operation (resulting into price stability and year-round employment)

  • Products incorporating perforations, hollows, and waste material (viz. perforated bricks, hollow clay blocks, flyash-clay/flyash-lime/flyash-cement bricks, etc.)

  • Responsible clay mining

  • Replacement of coal with piped natural gas as fuel

  • Reduction in stack emission levels of SPM (including black carbon), SO2, etc.

The policy interventions have so far touched energy efficiency, responsible extraction and use of topsoil, stack emission and labor aspects of the industry only. Other sustainability parameters such as fugitive, NOx and HF emissions, enterprise productivity/profitability, health and safety of employees and local community, biodiversity, etc. are yet to be addressed.


3.0 Shape of the things to come:


Since early seventies, the world is becoming increasingly aware of the ill effects of smoke, acid rain, desertification, 'green-house phenomenon', extinction of rare species, disintegration of the ozone shield, etc. on our environment. This has led to 'sustainable development' becoming the buzzword of the day. In line with this thinking, all long-term developments in the brick industry are expected to be influenced by the 'principle of sustainability' alone. 'Sustainable development' means 'development that meets the needs of the present without compromising with the ability of future generations to meet their own needs'. Indian walling material market is very large and diverse. Therefore, every walling product will have its own ‘nische’ space under a specific market situation.


It is widely expected that perforated bricks and hollow clay blocks stand the best chance to become the most preferred walling material in India in the coming years. However, when perforated bricks and hollow clay blocks overtake solid clay brick walling in popularity, interlocking solid clay bricks can become an ideal paving material and thin solid bricks (or brick ‘slips’) with a range of sizes, colors and textures may become a premium facing material.


It is also possible that till all solid clay brick manufacturers shift to production of perforated or hollow products, the Government may mandate use of solid bricks in ‘rat-trap’, Quetta, etc. bonds to increase thermal and sound insulation of walls and to make them lighter. Consequently, all the 3 shaping technologies, viz. de-airing extrusion, soft-mud moulding and dust pressing, will remain relevant in future. Artificial drying using chamber and tunnel dryers will replace sun-drying completely and all firing technologies will slowly give way to tunnel kilns

working on Piped Natural Gas (PNG). Clay preparation and handling/setting operations will become fully mechanized and to a great extent, automated.


It is high time that a ‘National Road Map’ for the heavy clay industry gets developed and starts to roll at the earliest. Due to the extreme diversity of the industry, development of Regional Road Maps may also become necessary to take into account regional clay-climate-market variations. All India Brick and Tile Manufacturers’ Federation (AIBTMF) is the right agency to initiate this action. To ensure success of the road map, ownership and commitment of all stakeholders is a must. In this light, the success of the recently launched E3 Certification Scheme of BEE will create a good example of ‘bottom-up’ – as against ‘top-down’ - policymaking in the country.

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