GeoAI Platform Helping Target Brick Kiln Air Pollution

GeoAI Platform Helping Target Brick Kiln Air Pollution
Feb 2021 , by , in Interviews

By Swetha Kolluri, Rozita Singh, and Dr. Krishnan S Raghavan

Every winter, more than 140 million Indians are exposed to severe air pollution when the AQI crosses the hazardous mark of 300. Source apportionment studies reveal that the brick manufacturing sector contributes to 8% of Delhi/NCR’s air pollution, which is nearly a quarter of the total pollution contributed by industrial emissions.

Brick manufacturing units, or brick kilns, also cause soil degradation and groundwater depletion around their locations. Some of them also employ bonded labour, child labour and the ultra-poor. About 1.5 crore labourers work in extreme conditions in brick kilns across India. They were one of the segments of informal workers that were severely affected during the COVID-19 pandemic.

These multiple problems encouraged us to identify brick kilns hotspots where myriad social and environmental challenges intersect. The research paper ‘Slavery from Space’ from the University of Nottingham showcased a novel approach of using geospatial technologies and artificial intelligence to detect the exact locations of brick kilns using satellite imagery. We connected with the University and teamed up with researchers from Rights Lab who are focussed on creating impact through research to help us identify such air pollution hotspots in India.      

Journey from Innovation to Impact

After the research identified 47,000 precise locations of brick kilns, we had multi-stakeholder consultations with government agencies and civil society in Bihar, Haryana, Punjab and Rajasthan. Though identification through research is an important first step, regulatory challenges around brick kilns still needed to be addressed. But, the environment and labour regulators in these states mentioned that they were severely understaffed and required a more targeted approach. This is where the GeoAI Platform came in.

Adding New Value

The GeoAI platform demonstrated how environmental non-compliance can be detected from space using artificial intelligence. It significantly reduces the humongous task and investments required to regulate each and every industrial unit in India.

For instance, the challenge of monitoring about 9,000 brick kilns in Bihar was brought down to less than 1,000. It is a novel approach for improving regulatory governance in India. The GeoAI platform brings together coordinated action from diverse stakeholders – regulators, government agencies, civil society, and volunteer groups to tackle the complexity around brick kilns.

Tackling Non-compliance          

Context-specific sensitivity is also being introduced to address non-compliance by some of the brick kilns. This is especially important during COVID times as abrupt closing down of non-complaint brick kilns impacts livelihoods of thousands of people working there. Industry meets, capacity building and facilitating transition to clean tech through affordable finance along with regulations are some of the potential development pathways we are planning for non-compliant brick kilns.

Process Efficiency

The fuel used in brick kilns is a matter of concern too. Poor quality coal, pet coke, plastic waste and even tyres are used as input fuel to reduce the cost of production, which result in dire public health consequences. A different question emerged from this field insight: Can biofuels from crop residue (an important pollution source) be used as an alternative in the brick kiln industry?

Designed using principles of a circular economy, we are rolling out this experiment in partnership with a start-up A2P Pvt Ltd. If successful, it could simultaneously reduce emissions from both the burning of crop residue as well as brick kiln industries. Watch this space for more updates!

Labour concerns

Many labourers working at brick kilns neither have access to government social security schemes nor receive minimum wages or have decent worksite conditions. In some cases, they don’t even have access to their own identity cards. GeoAI platform helps in reporting violations of ‘Right to Life’ under Article 21 of India’s constitution, of relevant labour laws, human rights and access to social security. We are exploring partnerships with the Ministry of Social Justice & Empowerment, Labour Welfare and the civil society to enhance livelihoods of labour and facilitate evidence-based policy dialogues on the topic. 

Future thinking

The brick manufacturing industry may probably die out in India within the next two decades as modern construction moves more towards monolithic concrete and prefabricated constructions. Environmental agencies are meanwhile promoting replacement of clay bricks with non-fired fly-ash bricks produced from fly ash, sand, lime, gypsum and cement. While the demand from construction industry will change at its own pace, India still needs to accelerate finding solutions for the social and environmental challenges around brick kilns.


Swetha Kolluri, Head of Experimentation, Accelerator Lab UNDP India

Rozita Singh, Head of Solutions Mapping, Accelerator Lab UNDP India

Dr. Krishnan S Raghavan,  Head of Exploration, Accelerator Lab UNDP India

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