Making Post-COVID Economic Recovery Sustainable: Lessons from Bihar’s Construction Sector

Out of the total CO2 emissions of the country, Bihar alone contributes around 35 million tonnes from energy and around 16 million tonnes from the burnt clay brick sector. The latter is slated to rise considering the increased construction activity and the resulting higher consumption of building materials.

In Bihar, the brick sector is the third highest emitter of CO2, after agriculture and energy. This is due to the present technology of clay brick firing using coal as fuel. Bihar has about 6,602 burnt clay brick kilns which produce approximately 18 billion fired clay bricks annually. In manufacturing these clay bricks, approximately 55 million tonnes of fertile soil is stripped off every year. The high use of agricultural soil puts immense pressure on the agricultural activity which is the backbone of Bihar’s economy, generating nearly 24.84% of State Domestic Product and giving employment to 77% of the state’s workforce.

On the other side, the brick sector in the state provides employment to around 6.6 million people generating revenue of Rs. 135 billion annually. Thus, the major issue is to balance the environmental needs and job creation without affecting the state’s revenue.

On the other hand, India is a country that is recovering from a major public health crisis due to the Covid-19 pandemic spread across the entire world. It will still take a couple of years or even a decade to completely come out of the crisis, but signs of recovery are visible and encouraging. The pandemic has also affected the Indian economy to a large extent. This has led to a major economic and job crisis with a severe economic downturn affecting people, the government and the private sector. Both the organised and unorganised sectors have been impacted. But the intensity of the crisis is more in the unorganised sector, which is more labour intensive, unskilled/semi-skilled labour oriented, and has less access to formal institutional knowledge and finance. As per the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE) data, in September 2020 India had an overall unemployment rate of 6.67% with states like Bihar and Haryana going beyond 10%. While the unemployment rate is projected to rise further in 2021 (Unni, 2020), the existing loss of economic opportunities, individual income and GDP has already created a high impact on small traders, daily wage labourers and the overall MSME sector. Given the fact that India’s small businesses employed around 110 million people and accounted for almost half of the country’s exports in 2019-20, the scale of the pandemic impact on the small businesses is bound to take its toll on the GDP.

The pandemic has also shown us how nature can regenerate itself in the absence of economic activity and self-heal from the evils of climate change and environmental degradation. It is high time we took note of this and moved towards a more inclusive, circular and regenerative economy benefitting people and the planet. As with other countries, India is also slowly coming out of the crisis and supporting an economic recovery through stimulus packages and giving a helping hand to the agricultural and MSME sectors. This is necessary since both these sectors are the highest creators of jobs and public wealth. It is of utmost importance that the pathway to recovery should be green, create wealth and create employment. This will help in enhancing the resilience of people and the planet and provide them with knowledge and strength to cope with all future disasters and pandemics.

An initiative by Development Alternatives

Quite a number of initiatives have been initiated by Development Alternatives (DA) in association with the Bihar State Pollution Control Board (BSPCB), supported by Shakti Sustainable Energy Foundation (SSEF) in Bihar, to introduce cleaner brick production technologies. While some partners are working on the conversion of the existing ‘Fix Chimney Bull’s Trench Kiln’ (FCBTK) to ‘Natural Draft Zig Zag kiln’, DA along with BSPCB has been creating sustainable ecosystems within Bihar for the adoption of fly ash bricks. Fly ash bricks have the dual advantage of being a ‘zero’ emission building material technology, using waste materials and thereby avoiding the use of any agricultural soil. No jobs opportunities are compromised and the contribution to the state economy is unaffected too.

It is a perfect example of circulating the local economy, thereby promoting the growth of the small and medium enterprises (SME) sector. A single fly ash enterprise generates eight to 15 local jobs, thus creating scope for providing local employment to migrant workers in their own place. This will help in reducing migration and supporting people and the economy in a post-COVID-19 scenario also.

During the period of intervention from 2012 to 2020, the market share of fly ash brick industry has improved from 0 to 2.3% of the total brick industry. From only one fly ash brick enterprise in 2006, there are more than 210 enterprises spread across Bihar today. With current market trends and continued systemic interventions, there is a potential to produce 13 billion fly ash bricks, which would be at least 50% of the total bricks in the industry if 100% unutilised fly ash is used in brick making.

Supported by BSPCB, more than 80 training programmes have been conducted across fly ash brick units in Bihar to improve the quality of fly ash bricks produced. This has resulted in an increased market share of 16% of good quality bricks as per PWD standards. To meet the demand of various departments of the state government, a fly ash brick availability mapping has also been done and adopted by BSPCB and the Department of Environment Forests (DoEF) and climate change (CC).

 The success of these collective efforts over the past couple of years can be seen from the key policy changes witnessed in Bihar and the impacts created (Figure 1).

Key initiatives by the Government of Bihar

Throughout the journey from 2012, the BSPCB supported by the DoEFand CC has been an able partner to transform the state into a low carbon economy while creating skills and entrepreneurship, especially in the MSME sector. Some of the key initiatives have been summarised in Figure 1. The most notable achievements are:

  • Constitutionalise the Bihar Task Force on Clean Technology to State Level Monitoring Committee on Fly Ash administered by Department of Environment and Forests and chaired by the Principal Secretary
  • State notification on 100% utilisation of fly ash bricks in public construction across Bihar
  • Transportation subsidies to fly ash entrepreneurs for the lifting of fly ash from thermal power plants
  • A tripartite agreement between BSPCB, DA and SSEF to achieve carbon neutrality in the construction sector of Bihar

By Dr SoumenMaity


This blog first appeared as an editorial in Development Alternatives Newsletter April, 2021 

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