Fistful of Clay
A pinch of clay has moulded the lives of many in India. Through structures and art forms. But, the last few decades have seen the construction industry take over. Its rampant use in clay bricks has led to environmental degradation, affecting millions of livelihoods.
Clay is available everywhere. It can be moulded into a form with very little effort. No wonder it has shaped—quite literally—the Indian art scenario for centuries. But it is not solely the craft moulded from clay that makes it such a critical component of nature.…
Clay is not just a layer of soil lying beneath our feet. It is soil that is plastic when moist, but hard when fired. Infact, clay controls most of the properties of soil. It has a high water retention capacity and is rich in nutrients.Also in minerals like silicon, aluminium and phosphates. It is a major force behind binding earth’s topsoil. The topsoil is the uppermost layer of soil, measuring usually between six to eight inches. It has the highest amount of organic matter, which allows it to support plant life.
Clay is a major player here. Its plasticity allows tiny particles to stick to one another. So, one can change its shape and form anyway — into a horse, a toy cart, or even a house — a real one that too!
This is the magic of clay. Potters in India number about 3.5 million. It includes artisans who create other kinds of craft from clay. Then there are builders who make bricks using clay — known as burnt clay bricks. But there is a difference. In fact, a huge construction industry threatens the traditional livelihoods of artisans. How?
Clay — natural resource
Clay is a limited natural resource. And a fistful of it means a lot for artisans, like these living the Kumartoli in Kolkata. The potters eke out a living by making pots, toys, ritual figures and cooking utensils from clay. This tradition has existed since the 17th century. The terracotta Bankura horse of Bengal is a famous one, moulded from the rich alluvial clay in the state’s rivers.
Today, the art is dying out as clay is depleting. Artisans have been forced to opt for other jobs like brick making. The supply of clay is limited but its demand in the construction industry is very high. A shortfall of 25 billion bricks is likely on a rough demand of 100 billion bricks an year by the end of the century.
At what cost? Clay bricks are made in kilns. Clay is burnt on lands, a process that destroys the topsoil. And It takes Nature about 100-400 years to form 10 millimetres of topsoil and over 3,000 to 12,000 years to replace 30 mm.
Then there is the size of bricks. It is a standard one, even if clay from different places has varying clay content. To meet high technological standards, more coke (heating up charcoal) is used, which leads to more emissions and, therefore, environmental degradation...
Researchers have suggested adding flyash (residue from heating coal) in making bricks to reduce topsoil depletion. Also, mud could be a better alternative for bricks (See Gobar Times, March 2003). It too, has some setbacks, but so does any material. But it will save the environmental cost and the livelihoods of lakhs of clay artisans.