Winter season is over and with it the outcry regarding smog and the failure of the government to effectively tackle it. Understandably, with an ongoing global pandemic this is the last of the government’s concerns at the moment — that is until next winter rolls around and we are back at square one again. With the government’s haphazard measures to tackle smog every year, it is thousands of brick kiln workers that suffer as the government shuts down brick kilns to ‘protect the environment’ with wanton disregard for those who rely on this industry as the primary source of their livelihoods. These brick kiln workers when employed earn hardship wages, or wages which barely cover their cost of existence, and to lose this, while supposedly in the interest of public good, is not fair nor just. The right to life under Article 9 of the Constitution of Pakistan, 1973, encompasses the right to a clean and healthy environment but for brick kilns to be forced to disproportionately bear the burden of a cleaner environment is unjust. The forcible closures of brick kilns is also violative of the workers’ fundamental rights such as their right to work (Article 18), their right of livelihood (articles 4, 9), and is also discriminatory against them (Article 25).
We have already seen brick kiln workers bear the cost and effort to come to the streets of Lahore on November 3, 2020, to oppose the shutdown, and this is not because they wanted cleaner air for themselves, but rather because they were being forced into this position. The issue of workers facing unemployment due to polluting industries is faced by governments across the world, not just Pakistan, and they have chosen different methods by which to tackle them. The more progressive governments create alternative jobs and economies which are green and clean (such as building solar panels) for workers to transition into if they are facing permanent unemployment by the shutting down of ‘dirty’ industries. Most governments and courts also follow the “polluter pays” principle, which is in fact incorporated into the Punjab Environment Protection Act, 1997, which requires the industry to pay the costs of the pollution it generates — either through cleanup, compensation wages, and other necessary actions.
Then the onus squarely falls upon the Punjab government on how it wishes to proceed in these matters which goes beyond its “command control” approach which neglects the issue of livelihood of workers even as it accommodates the interests of industry through many means. Under Section 16(2)(h) of the National Disaster Management Act, 2010, the provincial authority is responsible for promoting general education, awareness and community training, or powers which can be creatively used to develop alternative industries which do not generate pollution. So right now, with some months before the advent of smog season, there are a number of measures that can be and should be taken proactively.
The government has mandated all brick kilns to be converted into zigzag technology for them to continue working in the winter. This technology allows kilns to function as it reduces carbon emissions by 40-60%, as per research by the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), a regional intergovernmental organisation working in the Hindu Kush Himalayas as part of the UN’s Climate and Clean Air Coalition (CCAC) initiative. Presently, the total cost for converting a traditional brick kiln into a zigzag technology driven brick kiln is around Rs1 million. To facilitate the conversion the government has introduced loans but by February only 75% of the brick kilns in Punjab have been successfully converted to the zigzag technology, the process being slow and drawn out. There is a dire need for the government to step in and speed up the process of conversion through widespread grants, easier loans with more time given to brick kiln owners to repay the loan and site visits by officials to actively encourage conversion. Another advantage of the zigzag method that can be used by the government to its advantage in campaigning for conversion is that zigzag methodology significantly increases the production of bricks, while reducing coal consumption by 20% and it produces more A-grade bricks.
A major aspect, however that needs to be focused on is the registration of brick kilns. Currently no brick kiln is registered either with the labour department, social security institutions, or with any other government authority. The workers themselves do not have the protection as they too are not registered with the labour department or any other social security institutions. In a separate matter regarding juvenile bonded labourers in brick kilns before the Honourable Justice Athar Minallah of the Islamabad High Court, a report was submitted before the court by a commission. The commission in its recommendations emphasised on the need for registration of brick kilns under the Factories Act, 1934, by the labour department and on the maintenance of employment contracts and the maintenance of prescribed registers, under relevant labour laws. This process of registration if initiated by the Punjab government will grant legal protection for thousands of brick kiln workers. And in situations where brick kilns might be closed due to environmental concerns, it will enable the labour department to contact workers and duly compensate them for wages lost due to the closure in the past and present.
At this moment the government has time to act so as to not render thousands of workers without their livelihood in winter as has been the case for the last three years. Even in the issuance of orders demanding the closure of brick kilns the government has to move circumspectly and be considerate that fundamental rights of all citizens are equally respected when orders such as these are issued.