Kiln Fields – How brick kilns hurt the environment

The brickmaking industry gradually converts fertile fields into sterile lands. Here’s how it’s done…

Sarus Cranes take flight outside a brick kiln in Uttar Pradesh’s Rae Bareli district

As a kid when I used to take a bus to go outside the village, usually to Kanpur, the brick chimneys were on my list of wayside wonders. The sites were marked by huge twin maroon chimneys and they dominated the surrounding countryside. I never managed a visit any of them, but I knew they were brick kilns (or ita bhatta in the local language). I could only imagine what went on inside their huge ovens, which churned out hundreds of thousands of deep-red bricks that were used to build our houses. 

My grandfather once showed me the marking on the bricks excavated from our home – BSB. It stood for Bishwambar Nath Bhat, the owner of the brick kiln that supplied quality bricks for our home more than 100 years ago. It was the only one in the district. 

So fascinated was I by the markings on the brick that while hunting for bugs and scorpions underneath old bricks, I would observe the markings first. From just one in the district at the beginning of the twentieth century, brick kilns have now multiplied. So have their tell-tale signs – dug-out orchards, scarred fields, huge red chimneys belching smoke, chimneys under construction, fields full of clay bricks ready to be being carted to the ovens… 

Fuelled by the recent shift in economy, construction activity has boomed. New houses, shops, godowns, roads, panchayat houses, schools, hospitals and more brick kilns – everything requires them. It has become a lucrative industry. 

This is a photo-feature on the brick kilns and their impact on the surrounding environment. 

The Dug Out Orchards

Fresh land is acquired for brick kilns. Often, these are orchards with standing trees
Land is cut away around the roots of trees

This is a very common practice and a slow killer. The land surrounding the trees is cut away. The idea being that mature trees can keep producing the fruits anyway, at least for a few years after which they will collapse due to root injuries or erosion of the remaining soil. Then the orchard will be used as a regular field.

Over time, the trees die from root damage

The Scarred Fields

After the trees are gone the fields, divested of topsoil, turn fallow

Steep banks are formed by continuous water erosion

These are either the unproductive “usar” or fallow lands, usually in the village commons or bought off from farmers in need of money. The contract is for 3-5 years post which the hollowed out fields are returned to the farmers to eke out the meager and largely diminished harvests. Sometimes the soil removal is opportunistic and helps carve out fields from uneven ground. This results in steep banks where the field rat holes become nesting holes. A bank near my home is now used by swallows.

Holes in the banks can sometimes support animal life, like rats and hole-nesting birds such as swallows, hoopoes, bee-eaters and rollers

Breaking New Ground 

To keep the kilns running, new fields are obtained every few years. They are then dug upto 6 feet deep – a process that can take 3 years.

New fields are acquired to keep the kilns running

The Kiln

Enormous chimneys crown the furnaces in which the bricks are baked

The chimney is a part of the huge central semi-circular furnace surrounded by a U-shaped moat-like space, which is stacked with bricks. One batch can run for almost 6 months. The kilns are fired using local wood which, apart from topsoil consumption, constitutes the second huge impact on the local environment.

Fresh bricks are cut out from the kilns

Brick-making consumes a large quantity of firewood, taxing the local environment further

Text and Photographs by Sahastrarashmi



  • SR

    Traveller, photographer, philosopher, art connoisseur, trekking guru, and master trip planner, Sahastrarashmi (SR or Sahastra to his friends) is on a relentless quest for the story of life. An engineer from the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur, he works in Chennai, India and lives (on weekends) in the former French enclave of Pondicherry (Puducherry to the officious). He is on a mission to introduce the uninitiated to the glory of the Himalaya.

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