This analytical section uses framing analysis as a way forward to identify “pathways” for change. This qualitative way of framing solutions borrows the “pathways thinking” metaphor used in the sustainable development discourse (Wise et al. 2014).
The climate connection: forecasted climate change-related heat impacts
India is already at high risk of excessive heat. In many places, the maximum temperatures during some parts of the year already exceed 40 °C. An additional 3–5 °C will make outdoor physical work very difficult during the hottest periods (Kjellstrom 2009; Venugopal et al. 2016). Figure 1 shows the average heat stress index WBGT (ISO 1989) during the month of May in Chennai over time and future modeling based on the IPCC’s representative concentration pathway of 8.5 (Climate CHIP 2016; IPCC 2013). The WBGT is calculated from airport weather station data and modeling data from the University of East Anglia, UK, produced by HOTHAPS Soft (Kjellström et al. 2013; Lemke and Kjellström 2012). Hence, solar radiation is not accounted for in this data set. WBGT levels are already close to or even above the limit values identified for brick kiln work in Chennai (specifically a WBGT of 28 °C), and that is without even accounting for solar radiation and the contribution of the urban heat island effect (Kleerekoper et al. 2012). Temperatures are projected to climb above the limit values of 33 °C for a resting acclimatized worker by the end of the century (Fig. 1), thus worsening conditions in Chennai.
Given these potential thermal futures, the need for radical interventions becomes even more apparent. Our analysis now turns to ways of redefining the problems and finding new soft solutions to overcome the complex challenges faced by people working at brick kilns.
Reframing the role of technology: from high tech to “appropriate technology”
It became apparent during the literature review that experts have tended to focus primarily on technical solutions whether using infrastructure changes such as improved smoke stacks, or fuel mix modifications at the kiln furnace. Furthermore, the solutions suggested tend to focus on mitigating problems affecting populations living far away from the brick kilns, but not specifically on health challenges facing the local migrant populations working at the brick kilns to frequently live either on-site or nearby the facility. For example, in the Clean Air Task Force’s 2012 report on brick kilns, the final roadmap includes many technical solutions, but only in the final sentence of its recommendations do they suggest their technical solutions may lead to an “improvement of working conditions for millions of workers employed in brick kilns” (CATF 2012: XXIV).
In this next section, “appropriate technologies” are suggested that may actually be better suited to resolving some of the heat-related social and environmental issues affecting people working at brick kilns.
Locally “appropriate technology” approaches
Alternative choices in building materials could minimize environmental hazards and reduce the health impacts of brick production. One alternative is to use sun-dried mud bricks as a more locally appropriate technology. In Chennai today during the working season, the sun provides a free and abundant source of heat. Thus, the sun can be used as a natural fuel for drying the bricks. Experiments with using sun-dried earth bricks (Fathy 1973; Kennedy 2004) show that using local and natural earth materials in buildings is energy efficient, low in toxicity, safe, and durable, especially if obtained from the local environment. Other research shows that using low energy-intensive earth building materials could be an asset in reducing CO2 emissions as well (May 2010; Rael 2009). The use of locally sourced materials can provide social and economic benefits locally while also reducing production costs compared to using both imported and industrialized building methods and materials (Morela et al. 2001). In countries where labor is abundant and labor costs are low, using the existing workforce of craftsmen and skilled locals opens up more job opportunities for local people (Dabaieh 2011) while strengthening the local community and reducing the dependency on energy-consuming construction techniques.
Another benefit of using mud brick and other locally produced natural building materials is the ability to ensure building materials are locally produced, recycled, and re-used, as well as being simply able to return to Earth as soil for vegetation (Morela et al. 2001). The sun-dried bricks can be promoted in the local market as an environmentally friendly building material, and help local consumers to gradually become aware of “green” issues. Legislation can help introduce sun-dried bricks into the marketplace and put into effect environmentally friendly building practices. The bricks also have significant implications for long-term costs, building performance, and energy consumption due to their thermal properties. Using sun-dried clay brick can help in producing so-called zero carbon buildings for two reasons. Firstly, the embodied carbon from energy usage during brick production is minimal thanks to using sunlight instead of coal or firewood in the drying process. Secondly, the sun-dried bricks can become CO2 storage sinks if lime is added to the clay mixture of the bricks during production to help the bricks take CO2 out of the air. Basically, the lime acts to provide this CO2-absorbing capability by changing the physical properties of the clay to improve the water resistivity properties of the bricks (Jones 2005). Plastering sun-dried brick walls with lime plaster then rendered with casein protects the external brick surface from water erosion during rainy seasons. However, one caveat is that the weather in Chennai can be quite humid. Even though the lime needs humidity for the complete chemical process in the clay mix to take place, the humidity may impair the sun-drying process.
Local initiatives have already begun trying to pilot projects using cast mud bricks in building construction (Auroville Earth Institute 2016). The know-how is there, as is the tremendous potential to gradually transform brick manufacturing into a cleaner industry. If sun-dried mud bricks are cast manually, one person can cast up to 700 bricks (25 × 13 × 12 cm) in 8 working hours. If compared economically with fuel prices, sun-dried mud brick production could be far more economical, thus making the final brick price more competitive in the market. Further, the burning process takes almost the same time as it takes for the sun-dried bricks to dry in the sun. From a life-cycle analysis and cradle-to-cradle perspective, the embodied energy in creating the sun-dried mud bricks, from manufacturing to demolition and reuse, is minimal. Thus, sun-dried bricks have the potential to address more challenges overall compared to the other existing brick-manufacturing options available today, such as fly ash bricks, perforated bricks, and hollow cement bricks. Retrofitting the existing brick factories could take advantage of their mixing and casting infrastructure, while removing the energy intensive, heavily polluting firing process found in India’s current brick kiln factories.
Reframing the role of people: from global human capital to local human rights
A recent UN report on the connection between labor and climate change argues for incremental interventions that focus on policy recommendations that emphasize the use of direct occupational health approaches that look to ILO guidelines (UNDP 2016), but only under business-as-usual structural regimes. The report mentions “productivity” 107 times, while never once recommending a rights-based approach for protecting people and the environment from a changing climate. The report does not evaluate the risks of coercive bonded labor practices, inequality, and oppression increasing among vulnerable populations who are forced to work at sites where heat exposure is already high and will worsen under climate change, as could happen with people working at brick kilns. However, the ILO stated as early as 2005 that brick kiln work “is a particularly prominent feature of contemporary forced labour situations” (Srivastava 2005). This has been corroborated by other reports that have pointed out that industrial brick production sites have been found to be sites of neo-bondage, mediated by middlemen posing as recruitment agencies (Breman 1996, 2007; Molankal 2008).This underscores the need to reframe the discussion from being about how to maximize the productivity of global human capital to being about a rights-based approach to protecting people and the environment. In this next section, we present framings that incorporate localization strategies, and an approach for protecting environmental sustainability along with local human rights.
Participatory socio-culturally informed localization approaches
Loss of local decision-making influence can be a side effect of globalization. Localization helps local people bridge the growing democratic influence gap by regaining influence within their communities. Localization of decision-making could provide a way to regain self-sufficiency for India’s village communities. Using an open participatory process could also engage a wider range of local actors, including vulnerable groups such as migrant workers. Re-localization could be described as a process in which “people are reaffirming control of their lives” (by) putting culture and dialog back at the heart of their efforts to liberate society (Liegey et al. 2015). It is not too late to reach for what Metcalfe (1833) recommended, which was to cultivate India’s local village economies, which were later called village republics and village swaraj by M. K. Gandhi (Mandelbaum 1970).The Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment similarly argued for decentralized governance and sustainable village ecology as an answer to rural India’s threatened ecological existence. In their 1995 video The Village Republic, which followed up on their 1989 landmark publication, Towards Green Villages: A Strategy for Environmentally-Sound and Participatory Rural Development, they reported on “pioneering community-based rural natural resource regeneration efforts in India carried out in the 1970s and 1980s” as practical examples of the Gandhian “Village Republics” concept (CSE 2017).
Then there is the open re-localization approach, which emphasizes “openness” in order to underscore the collaborative and dialog-based dimensions of the localization process beyond nationality or religion, so as to instead celebrate diversity and provide “democratic tools that facilitate dialogue-driven, power sharing community arrangement[s] that pave the way towards non-violent outcomes that protect human rights and ecological sustainability” (Liegey et al. 2015). This shift to local economic decision-making would help local communities to regain control of what they produce and exchange through Social and Solidarity Economy (SSE) practices. SSE is used by organizations that are actively pursuing “social aims and fostering solidarity” (ILO 2014), and provides a way for local individuals and organizations to benefit from economies of scale and reduce costs, and achieve a common goal that would otherwise be unreachable individually (ILO 2002).
SSE also builds on ideas Peter Kropotkin described as “mutual support” in his book Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution, originally published in 1902, in which he declared that “mutual support – not mutual struggle – has had the leading part” in shaping what could be called “progress” in human communities as a counterpoint to the social Darwinism rooted in competition (Kropotkin 2014). Bringing local people into a participatory process to define both the problem and solution spaces would be key anchors in a process of “rehabilitating the political realm [by putting] culture and dialogue back at the heart of our efforts to liberate society [and] actively calling into question [...] the primacy of the economy and of work as society’s central values” (Liegey et al. 2015) so that socio-culturally informed ideas from the people themselves could enter the deliberative decision-making process. This would help migrants to begin to gain power over their own lives and to escape the neo-bondage.
The environmental sustainability and human rights-based approach framework
The most fundamental issue facing the people working at brick kilns is the system that perpetuates brick kilns as sites of coercive bondage and neo-bondage, which constitutes nothing less than institutionalized slavery. Addressing heat and climate change without considering human rights and ecological injustices ignores the obvious “elephant in the room” when it comes to addressing brick kilns in a broader, socio-culturally informed fashion. Based on the evidence found at the Chennai field site and the climate change projections from the climate model, the hazards facing the migrant labor population are undeniable. The technical solutions presented in the previous section provide one pathway towards reconciling the human health threats facing the local people. Thus, this section details a socially inclusive pathway towards change. This socially inclusive perspective is used to reframe the solution space in which inclusive solutions are formed. Rather than formulating a top-down strategy, this section suggests a way in which solutions could be co-created alongside local populations as part of inclusive, iterative participatory processes. This more inclusive bottom-up approach provides a way for local people, including migrant populations, to become involved in work with local development agents to reframe the issue in a way that integrates considerations that reveal linkages between human rights violations and ecological injustice. Taking this approach provides a venue for raising climate change mitigation and adaptation strategies, while also providing an approach through which a new pathway can be formulated to reveal the true benefits of “what development is [meant] to achieve” (GI-ESCR 2014).
The Global Initiative for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (GI-ESCR) has published training materials for international development projects, advising an approach to rolling out development projects in order to secure “human rights for the current generation within a sustainable amount of ecological space that does not compromise the human rights of future generations” (GI-ESCR 2014). By emphasizing the need to integrate human rights and environmental sustainability as the core success criteria for sustainable development, the GI-ESCR has created what could be called the environmental sustainability and human rights-based approach (ES-HRbA) framework. The framework described in the guide is intended for application at the local level (GI-ESCR 2014), which also gives it the potential to be a critical tool when evaluating pathways for change. It provides a powerful framework of analysis and a basis for action, while helping to understand and guide development at the local level (GI-ESCR 2014).
The first stage of the ES-HRbA is to analyze the underlying causes of social injustice. Using environmental justice theory as the underlying framing in ES-HRbA provides a tool to “examine how social injustice is inextricably bound up in ecological injustice” by examining how discrimination and marginalization of vulnerable groups manifests. In the case of this study, the vulnerable groups we are referring to are workers at brick kilns’ sites (Breman 1996, 2007; Molankal 2008). Particularly from an environmental justice perspective, brick kiln workers also become vulnerable by virtue of living and working where pollution and hazard intersect with poverty and exclusion, coining the terms “environmental discrimination” (GI-ESCR 2014). Interventions can then be designed that focus on local sustainable development strategies for addressing “all humans” needs and capabilities, rather than (focusing on) the accumulation of wealth. Instead, human rights and respect for ecological boundaries become the focus (GI-ESCR 2014).
The next stage of the ES-HRbA combines the fight for human rights with the need for subsistence rights through resource conservation. This would help marginalized rural populations to escape or avoid farm debts by securing subsistence rights to control natural resources. Protecting subsistence rights as “a central plank of natural and environmental conservation [helps ensure that] resources of the poor will not be easily diverted to the rich” (Sachs 2003).
By focusing on human rights at the brick kilns in India, they cease to be just another kind of workplace with a voluntary workforce. The human rights focus would demand the immediate abolition of all forms of slavery, including bondage and neo-bondage, in accordance with both international laws against human trafficking, as well as the federal laws in India, which are criticized for being seldom enforced. Finally, there would be a clear mechanism for national and state authorities to enforce existing international laws from the UN and the ILO, in addition to existing national laws already ratified in India prohibiting child labor, bonded labor, and neo-bondage. This step alone could protect people from extreme heat exposure by addressing the enslavement of thousands of rural people, including migrant adults and their children in forced labor conditions, within India’s brick kiln factories.
Limitations to our analysis
Limitations to our analysis include a lack of time and resources to pilot solutions through actual interventions in the field. This is something that creates a future opportunity for new research, and practical interventions, whether through local engagement using action research or through federal level interventions. While differences in responsibility and impacts were reviewed between countries, as well as within India between the rural-urban population, this study did not investigate solutions to curtail the contribution of India’s affluent population to climate change. India’s growing affluent population shoulders some of the responsibility for climate change-inducing emissions, whether as brick kiln business owners or as consumers of energy-intensive products and services coming from the fossil fuel intensive economy. Thomas Piketty and Lucas Chancel describe the inequality of energy intensity usage measured as carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2eq) emissions within every country in their 2015 report. Their report stated that “within-country inequality in CO2eq emissions matters more and more to explain the global dispersion of CO2eq emissions [so] it is then crucial to focus on high individual emitters rather than high emitting countries [since] within-country inequality [now] makes up 50% of the global dispersion of CO2eq emissions” compared to the one third it accounted for in 1998 (Chancel and Piketty 2015). Thus, the rapid growth of emissions from India’s affluent should be examined critically.