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Granite industry blues

By Bobby Kunhu

The granite industry in Rajasthan has been growing at 50% annually. But this growth has serious social and environmental costs. For one, water sources are being depleted, forcing farmers to become labourers in the granite industry

granite industry in Rajasthan

Granite mining in Rajasthan is an approximately Rs 800 crore industry today; it forms 95% of India's dimension stone exports (stone delivered from the quarry rough, but brought to required sizes).

The history of granite, unlike marble, began after the formation of the state of Rajasthan. It started in 1965, with the establishment of the first granite factory by the Government of Rajasthan, with help from the department of mines and geology. All the work then -- from extraction to tile-making -- was undertaken manually. In 1971, the Rajasthan Industrial and Mines Development Corporation took over, finally leading to privatisation in 1987. By 1989 there were at least 600 small-scale industries involved in granite cutting across the state. Since then, granite exploration and processing is estimated to have grown by 50% annually. Granite mining and the granite industry in Rajasthan is concentrated mostly in Jalore, Sirohi, Bhilwara, Pali, Barmer and Jhunjhunu.

The growth of the granite industry in Rajasthan has been so exponential that within a short period of three decades, Jalore has come to be known as the Granite Capital of India. Jalore alone has 206 granite mining leases, up from 80 between 2006 and 2007 (an average of three hectares per mine) and 400 granite processing units capable of producing from 12" x 24" tiles to 24" x 120" slabs. Hundreds of shades of granite from Rajasthan reach various parts of the country and the world -- mainly the Middle East, Europe and North America.

All this information is up for grabs on the Rajasthan government website, the Jalore granite industry website and the website of the Rajasthan department of mines and geology. It's a rosy picture indeed, showcasing the fantastic growth of the industry. Granite is strongly promoted as a replacement for marble in the construction business the world over.

But what the government's story does not reveal is the cost -- both social and environmental -- at which this growth has been achieved. The mining officer at the department of mines and geology in charge of Jalore had no idea either about mines or about geology, let alone the social and environmental costs.

Traditionally, the mainstay of the Jalore economy has been agriculture and animal husbandry. Both are dependent on average rainfall of 41.9 mm, with temperature variations of 4-40 degrees Celsius. Agriculture is mainly rain-fed in this region, which means that farming itself is precarious. The mines and processing units are largely owned by the Jain, Maheshwari, Aggarwal and Chowdhary communities, while the labourers belong to the Mali, Rebbari, Bheel and Chowdhary communities. The caste hierarchy is thus firmly in place.

Around 7.2 crore litres of water are required annually to process granite in Jalore district alone. And this requirement increases every year, in direct proportion to the annual growth rate of 50% within the granite industry. All this water goes waste as slurry, as neither the state nor the industry has taken steps towards conserving or recycling water used in the granite industry.

What does this mean for agriculture in this region? The bajra cultivator, who is usually a low-caste marginal farmer with no political clout, dependent on water in a water-scarce region, is forced to compete for water with 100% export-oriented units like Shree Ram or Fateh Industries. The exponential increase in granite mining and industry and the consequent increase in demand for water has left the marginal farmer without water for irrigation. Given the demand for granite, one does not have to be a rocket scientist to figure out who will win in the war for water. Stretches of land that just one to five years ago were bursting with bajra crops stand barren. And the traditional bajra cultivator has no option but to become a labourer either in a granite mine or a granite factory. Most of the granite mines are populated with workers who were once agricultural labourers. The Rajasthan Human Development Report prepared by the Planning Commission of India raised concerns regarding decline in agriculture as early as 2002.

Following the explosion in granite mining, kerosene has replaced water as a coolant in the industry and is supposed to have revolutionised it. This means 4,000 litres of kerosene are required per month per granite processing unit. Translated in terms of the existing number of units, that's 1.92 crore litres of kerosene every year in Jalore alone. This too is growing at around 50% annually. Small-scale unit owners concede that all the kerosene is obtained from the black market and that there are no government mechanisms to regulate the practice. Imagine the repercussions on global warming on the one hand and the Public Distribution System (PDS) on the other, in a country where kerosene is still the most accessible and affordable domestic fuel. Again, the marginal farmer is waging a losing battle with industry, where the smallest unit has a turnover of at least Rs 2 crore.

Insofar as the granting of leases is concerned, they are being granted indiscriminately even within scheduled areas. The entire exercise takes place within a paradigm of nepotism and corruption, not necessarily in that order. There is supposed to be an affirmative action policy for communities without social or economic capital in place, particularly in scheduled areas, in accordance with the Supreme Court judgment in Samata vs State of Andhra Pradesh 1997 (4) SCALE 746. In reality, however, most leases are benami ones. Anyway, this might not even matter anymore as there are rumours afloat that the government intends to bring in legislation to override the legal impediment posed by the judgment and grant mining leases in scheduled areas to non-adivasis.

(Bobby Kunhu is a human rights lawyer and activist)

InfoChange News & Features, August 2008