Trapped in the past

  • 30/08/1993

IF SHAH Jahan's men were to return today to Makrana, from where the marble for the Taj Mahal was procured, they would have no problem recognising it. Little has changed in the small Aravalli town in Nagore district, which has become synonymous the world over with quality white marble: the town and its neighbourhood retain a medieval appearance.

In fact, Makrana is the biggest rebuff to those who argue that marble mining is economically necessary. In the small mining belt, from where marble worth hundreds of crores of rupees has been extracted during the past 400 years, virtually no development is visible, except, of course, for a few palatial houses of mine owners.

Says Hazi Mustaq Ahmed, an octogenarian mine owner, "Although people from all over come here to make money, they have not invested even a part of their earnings in Makrana. Even local mine owners invest their profits elsewhere." Ahmed, who recently started a luxury hotel in Makrana, is one of the few rich mine owners to have invested money in the town.

Most other entrepreneurs have not even diversified their business, let alone take philanthropic measures. Industries such as processing plants are coming up in the town only now and they are hardly modern. As a result, most of the Makrana marble is sold without value addition.

The argument that economic benefits will accrue from mining sounds hollow because Makrana lacks even basic facilities. The municipality has been unable to maintain even the main roads. The city bus stand, through which thousands of mine workers pass every day, lacks even a drinking water tap, or for that matter, a shed.

Facilities at mine sites are virtually non-existent. M Alam, a geologist-turned-mine owner, says this is because most miners are uneducated and hold leases that are handed down from generation to generation. "They do not feel the need to keep pace with technological change," Alam says. At the same time, they desire to earn more. Feuds in mine-owning families have led to the splintering of mine areas and several mines in Makrana today cover only 2,500 square metres.

"Because of the increasing demand for marble, extraction in Makrana in the past 20 years has been greater than in its entire recorded history of 350-400 years," says Salim Bhai, another rich mine owner. Most mines in Makrana now are very steep and deep, making extraction more difficult. Consequently, several miners complain that the belt is running out of marble.

But Alam disagrees. "There is still no dearth of marble here. But we need better technology and people with vision, who do not find investing in technology and human resources a waste," he says resignedly.

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