India's construction sector contributes about six per cent to her Gross Domestic Product. In the Tenth Five-year Plan currently unfolding, that figure is likely to go up. The plan envisages massive construction activity across the country. Over 60 per cent of the total plan outlay is likely to be spent on construction components alone. Question is: how many bricks does that translate into?
Says Rakesh Verma, of the All India Bricks and Tiles Manufacturers Association (aibtmf), "According to the data provided by our state associations, there are nearly 60,000 kilns operating all over the country." But this is a guesstimate. And how many bricks do these turn out? He cannot say. "The production capacity of a brick-manufacturing unit depends upon how big the ghera (area of the circle around its chimney) is. A big kiln with a comparatively bigger ghera produces more than 30,000 bricks every day. Medium and small kilns produce 20,000 and 10,000 per day respectively," he informs. Beyond this generality, no calculation exists of how many of the 60,000 kilns fall into these categories.
It is an informal economy, after all. Says Rajesh Kumar Gupta, who owns a kiln on the road that runs from Aligarh to Mathura in western Uttar Pradesh, "If you want to install a bhatta (brick kiln) , you will need at least 20 bigha s of land. This will cost between Rs 7 lakh to Rs 10 lakh, depending upon the rate of the land in a particular area. Rs 3 lakh to Rs 4 lakh are needed to install a pakki chimney. Rs 2 lakh to Rs 3 lakh we keep to give to labour as advance. There are other miscellaneous expenses, such as the cost of fuel." Rs 12 lakh to Rs 17 lakh in all, a sizeable amount. Who would invest such a sum if the returns weren't better?
Bigger the kiln, it seems, the more the profit. As Sanjeev Kumar Singh, president, Mathura Brick Kiln Association, says, "If you have a kiln with a bigger production capacity, you can make more profit because you will produce more bricks with the same quantity of coal." He undercuts himself immediately. "What if your stocks are not sold for a week, where would you store them? Ultimately you will sell them below the market price and incur a loss."
Shyam Singh runs a small kiln in district Bulandshahar. The unit runs on a 25-day cycle producing nearly 6.5 lakh bricks. "The business is profitable if the cycle completes perfectly and no fuel or labour problem occurs," he says. "But a problem may occur on any of the two ends (putting mud bricks in, taking made bricks out during the burning), or the pathiaya (the mud brick maker) runs away. Besides losing our advance given to labour, we also run into loss because this interrupts completion of the circle. In such a case, production stops, for there is no mud-brick to burn. We have to pay the money to those who worked but don't earn anything."
Singh's lament notwithstanding, brickmaking is whiplash business for 7-8 months in a year -- September to April in north India. Avoiding the monsoon, the kilns furiously produce various grades of bricks. " Avval and doyam, two better-quality bricks, are used in building and priced high: Rs 1,500 to Rs 1,700 per thousand bricks," informs Hari Om, another Bulandshahar kiln-owner. "The price of Soyam and talsa, two inferior-quality bricks used in foundations, remains between Rs 1,000 to Rs 1,200 per thousand bricks. Chatka is of the worst quality. Used in road construction, it is priced around Rs 900." Prices rise during the monsoon, or when demand outstrips supply, or when policy threatens to upset the unorganised cart. This happened in late 2004: " aibtmf called for a nation-wide strike in October last year against the flyash notification that forces us to mix flyash in bricks," says Verma. "Production stopped for nearly three-and-a-half months. In December, the price of a thousand bricks reached Rs 2,700, the highest ever."