The Jammu and Kashmir High Court issued a notice to the J&K Pollution Control Committee and Budgam’s deputy commissioner demanding a response to the recent permissions for new brick kilns.
Sahil Ahmad Dar (20) is extremely worried about the beautiful landscape of his native village Rangeen Kultreh. A small valley in Budgam district, the village is surrounded by small geological formations locally called wudder, also known as karewas— plateau-like elevated tracts on one end which gently merge with the surrounding landscape at the other end.
Around 15–20 years ago, several villagers had given their land on lease to set up around two dozen brick kilns.When more kilns were planned, around 1,000 almond trees in the karewa land in the village’s northern part were axed last November. Some kiln owners are now eyeing the southern part of karewas.
Apprehending the felling of more trees, Dar, an environmental activist who recently graduated, is “hurt to see the ongoing destruction” with his fellow villagers “unwilling” to prevent the damage.
“I tried to convince some of my neighbours and relatives not to give land on lease to brick kiln owners,” he says, alleging that officials, especially senior officers of the J&K Pollution Control Committee (JKPCC), are “paving the way for setting up these polluting industrial units, which emit toxic gases by using hard coke, old tyres and wood”.
When many villagers started cutting almond trees for hefty annual rent from kiln owners, Sahil filed a written complaint with the J&K grievance cell.
“When I saw some almond trees being axed on November 3, I immediately filed a complaint with the grievance cell, which alerted Budgam’s deputy commissioner within a few days. On November 12, the deputy commissioner’s office alerted Chadoora’s tehsildar,” says Dar.
“The deputy commissioner also issued an order on November 19 directing all sub-divisional magistrates and tehsildars to take action against illegal brick kilns violating the Jammu and Kashmir Brick Kilns (Regulation) Act, 2010,or other environmental laws related to brick kilns.”
However, the tehsildar didn’t visit Rangeen Kultreh and asked the patwari to act instead, Dar laments. “Instead of taking action, the patwari told the villagers I had filed the complaint. I had to face their ire. Had the tehsildar or patwari acted on time, a 1,000 almond trees would not have been cut,” he adds.
Twenty years ago, Rangeen Kultreh had no kiln and the karewas were untouched. Subsequently, around two dozen kilns were set up between 2003 and 2012.
When the patwari was alerted that only 20–25 almond trees had been felled, the revenue department officials, including him, “allowed the plunder”. “More trees were cut down in December and recently with touts assuring some villagers that the government will permit more brick kilns,” Dar says.
Why do villagers allow brick kilns?
Twenty years ago, Rangeen Kultreh had no kiln and the karewas were untouched. Subsequently, around two dozen kilns were set up between 2003 and 2012. From 2013 to 2022, the Budgam district administration and the erstwhile J&K Pollution Control Board (now known as JKPCC post the abrogation of special status under Article 370 of the Indian Constitution) didn’t permit more kilns.
According to legal experts, most kilns in Budgam or other parts of Kashmir violate the Brick Kiln Act and Section 21 of the Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1981.
“We expected the JKPCC to be stricter as it is under the Central Pollution Control Board’s administrative control. Instead, permission to set up two kilns was issued. The kilns are yet to be set up as the Budgam district administration, especially its agriculture and horticulture departments, is not consenting,” Dar says.
Kiln owners pay ₹30,000 for one kanal (5,445 square feet) annually. An average family has 7–8 kanals of land and earns around ₹2–2.5 lakh yearly without having to do anything. Almond farming doesn’t fetch much money due to lack of research and development to improve the yield in Rangeen Kultreh and many other areas of Kashmir. Besides, imported Iranian almonds have destroyed the market for Kashmiri almonds. Therefore, almond farmers prefer to lease out land to kiln owners.
“The J&K government, especially the horticulture department, could have mobilised almond growers to save the trees and motivated them not to lease out their land. Moreover, many Rangeen Kultreh residents are government employees and don’t want to work in the fields. They prefer leasing out their land to kiln owners,” says Fayaz Ahmad, a resident of Budgam’s Kaisermulla village, who grows almonds and apples.
Ahmad, who owns an almond orchard and several apple trees, would never lease his land. “My conscience won’t allow me to allow a brick kiln on my land even if the owner pays ₹50,000 per kanal. Kilns destroy the land surface in the long run and cause pollution in the surrounding areas. The huge chimneys with their smoke plumes are also an eyesore,” he says.
According to legal experts, most kilns in Budgam or other parts of Kashmir violate the Brick Kiln Act and Section 21 of the Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1981. All of them are Fixed Chimney Bull Trench Kilns (FCBTK), which employs an outdated and polluting technology. There has been no attempt to introduce zig-zag or piped-gas using brick kiln technology in Kashmir.
Kiln owners pay ₹30,000 for one kanal (5,445 square feet) annually. An average family has 7–8 kanals of land and earns around ₹2–2.5 lakh yearly without having to do anything
“Unfortunately, the Pollution Control Committee does not act against them and instead grants fresh permissions. The government doesn’t promote alternatives like concrete-sand blocks for construction and uses clay bricks even in its own buildings,” says Srinagar-based environmental lawyer Badrul Dujja. Hollow concrete blocks are considered by some to be a better and more environment-friendly technology than clay-fired bricks, but in Kashmir, cement production, mostly in the Khrew region, comes with its own problems.
High court issues notice
Some aggrieved apple and almond farmers led by Abdul Gani Bhat, who owns an apple farm in Rangeen Kultreh, filed a petition in the High Court of Jammu and Kashmir seeking an intervention. The petitioners’ counsel Syed Musaib challenged the permission issued by the Pollution Control Committee last November and this February.
“On March 2, a Bench headed by Justice Wasim Sadiq Nargal issued a notice to the respondents, JKPCC and Budgam’s deputy commissioner, asking them to respond within two weeks— but they haven’t responded,” says Bhat.
“The consent orders [permissions] violate the Jammu and Kashmir Brick Kilns (Regulation) Act and the Environmental (Protection) Act, 1986, and its amended Rules of 2022. That is why we challenged the permissions,” Musaib, an advocate at the high court, says.
Ashraf Wani, a lawyer practising at the High Court of Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh, says, “Section 4 (a), (b) and (c) of the Jammu and Kashmir Brick Kilns (Regulation) Act, 2010, states that kilns cannot be established on agricultural land or any piece of land which is fit for cultivation of any agricultural produce.”
Ashraf Wani, another lawyer practising at the high court, says, “Section 4 (a), (b) and (c) of the Jammu and Kashmir Brick Kilns (Regulation) Act states that kilns cannot be established on agricultural land or any piece of land which is fit for cultivation of any agricultural produce.”
But the JKPCC “permitted kilns on fertile agricultural land with thousands of apple, plum, almond and pear trees. Besides, corn, oats and mustard are also grown on the land on which they have permitted brick kilns”, adds Wani, who has challenged the permissions before the High Court of Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh. “A notice has been issued to the government. We expect an interim relief to my clients.”
Air force writes to the government
The Air Force Station in Srinagar sent a letter to Kashmir’s divisional commissioner and Budgam’s deputy commissioner on March 21 regarding several kilns coming up around its premises.
The station’s chief administrative officer wrote: “The brick kilns operating around Air Force Station, Srinagar emit a large quantity of smoke and particulate matter. This smog has a direct adverse effect on the environment and in-flight visibility during the terminal stage of the flight. It has been noticed that during the last decade, the number of brick kilns is rapidly increasing. Increasing number of brick kilns [worsens] environmental pollution.”