The luminescent marble of the Taj Mahal is said to have come from Makhrana, a quaint mining town in the state of Rajasthan. But though Makhrana marble can compete with the best in the world, the region is an ecological and economic disaster, thanks to the Rajasthan government's misguided mining policies
Once upon a time, an emperor of Hindustan pining for his love decided to build her a mausoleum. He wanted it built in the finest possible stone and he found the best and whitest in a remote southwestern corner of Rajasthan called Makhrana. The result is one of the seven wonders of the modern world -- the Taj Mahal. Other famous buildings constructed from marble from Makhrana include the Victoria Memorial in Kolkata, Hazratbal in Srinagar, the Jain temple of Dilwara in south Rajasthan and various other monuments. More recently, in 2004, Makhrana White was selected from amongst marble from all over the world for a mosque in Abu Dhabi.
Makhrana is a heavily populated and quaint mining town in Nagaur district, around 110 km from Ajmer. It has narrow winding cobbled streets, with one halfway decent hotel.
The livelihoods of the people of Makhrana are linked to its mines. So are Makhrana's visitors. Connoisseurs of marble visit the town to make sure they are buying original Makhrana stone. Any expert will vouch for the superiority of Makhrana White over any other marble -- predominantly calcitic in nature, it's the oldest and finest in terms of quality.
The superiority of Makhrana marble relates to the fact that it requires no chemical reinforcement, as does Italian marble; there are no pinholes, no changes in colour, no loss of polish. The more famous Makhrana marbles are classified as Makhrana Albeta, Makhrana Doongari and Makhrana Kumari, of which Albeta is considered the finest.
Makhrana's marble industry is estimated to be worth Rs 36 crore annually (that's 1.20 lakh tonnes worth), providing employment to at least 1 million people from 100-odd surrounding villages.
Deepak Bansal, chairperson of the Makhrana Marble Mines Society, a federation of mine owners, has a fruit bowl in his office made from the best Makhrana White. The stone is almost translucent!
According to him, most of the marble that's sold as Makhrana White is actually mined elsewhere in Rajasthan, places like Rajasamand etc. Bansal offers a minimum guarantee of 100 years for the real Makhrana marble.
Makhrana is unique in that its mine owners are possibly worse off than the mine workers, the reason being the utterly unimaginative and unsustainable process of mining. The result? The incredible Makhrana White cannot compete with the much more inferior Italian White.
The average licence size for a quarry in Makhrana is as little as 60 X 70 feet. For best results in the hill ranges of Makhrana, the marble needs to be mined at an incline of 60 degrees towards the east. The mines stand one against the other in a straight line, making the use of modern machinery in the quarries impossible. So the marble has to be extracted manually. After extraction within the 60 X 70 feet plot is over, the process forces the mines to go deep underground – burrowing below houses, under railway tracks, roads, buildings, etc. It is estimated that the mines reach a depth of between 200 and 300 feet. The whole of Makhrana town, with its population of around 85,000 people, could one day collapse!
The tectonic fragility of the region must also be kept in mind. The safety pillars left by the miners for land support have also been mined, both because demand for Makhrana White is so high and because of the physical limits of extraction, given the size of the mines. The fragility of the town was highlighted by a railway line that had collapsed into one of the underground burrows apparently whilst it was being laid in 2005. Despite this the mines are getting deeper -- beyond the 60 X 70 licence allotted by the department of mines and geology.
One mine worker dies every day in Makhrana, according to the Makhrana Marble Mines Society and the Rajasthan State Mine-Workers Union, an affiliate of the New Trade Union Initiative. The owner of the quarry pays a compensation for his death. The average compensation is Rs 12,00,000 per death. This definitely eats into the mines' profitability.
Many mines have been rendered useless because of landslides. Most of these landslides are caused by indiscriminate burrowing for extraction of the best-quality marble and destruction of the statutory safety pillars. Transport is generally blocked as a result of these landslides and the mine owners are forced to spend on separating the rubble from the precious stone that will bring them their fortune. According to the Mine Labour Protection Campaign (MLPC), 52 mines collapsed in 2006 alone.
Further, given that the mines are arranged in straight lines, and most do not have access to electricity, kerosene or petrol is used to cut the blocks. This is mostly procured in the black market.
Till a few years ago, mine workers had to scale down the mines -- a sort of reverse mountaineering that resulted in a number of accidents. Now there are ladders and safety equipment in place, thanks to the intervention of an NGO, the Mine Workers Union, and the Makhrana Marble Mines Society.
In Makhrana, mine workers and mine owners share their problems with each other. Collective bargaining could not be easier. I sat in on a meeting between the workers represented by the Rajasthan State Mine-Workers Union and the Makhrana Marble Mines Society at the office of one of the biggest mine owning companies in Makhrana -- Raghu Marbles. The meeting was convened to appraise the mine owners of the decisions taken at the Makhrana chapter union meeting. The moment a demand for an ambulance was raised, the owners agreed to arrange one within the week.
For centuries, the mainstay of Makhrana's economy has been marble; whether mining and processing, or small-scale industry like trinket-making which flourished around the marble trade. Today, however, thanks to the government of Rajasthan's misguided mining policy which grants mining licences for 60 X70 plots, the region's economy appears to be on the verge of collapse.
The solution put forward by both mine owners and mine workers is simple. Shift the town to the outskirts of the ranges where mining happens, change the mining process in Makhrana from licenses to leases. This would mean an increase in the size of allotted mining quarries towards the east, which would facilitate the use of machinery and safety mechanisms and put an end to illegal burrowing. This would mean safer and better working conditions for the worker, better production values and far fewer accident and hospitalisation expenses for the owner, and a safer and more viable environment for the residents of Makhrana. But the Government of Rajasthan seems to be absolutely deaf to these demands.
The emperor who built the Taj Mahal is alleged to have cut off the hands of the masons who built the Taj so that they would never be able to replicate the grand mausoleum they had built. Today's emperors seem to want to take that a stop forward and destroy the very source of the stone, in order to ensure that no other Taj is every built.