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Last Updated: Wednesday, 20 October, 2004, 07:34 GMT 08:34 UK
Marble trade sucks Indian villages dry
Competing demands for water are a growing problem as scarcity increases around the world. Sanjoy Majumder explores the issues facing drought-prone Rajasthan as part of Planet Under Pressure, a BBC News series on some of the world's biggest environmental problems.

By Sanjoy Majumder,
BBC News Online correspondent in Kishangarh, India

The highway from the Indian capital Delhi stretches across the arid rocky landscape that makes up the desert state of Rajasthan.

Trucks drive past, carrying heavily laden cargo from ports along the western coast of India to the national capital and beyond.

Kishangarh lies just off the highway, some 350 kilometres south-west of Delhi.

It is surrounded by rocky hills, part of the Aravalli range that stretches from Delhi down through Rajasthan to the state of Gujarat.

Rajasthan is one of India's driest states. It gets little rain compared to other parts of India and has been hit by drought several years in a row.

But in Kishangarh, as in many other parts of the state, the natural problem is exacerbated by human intervention.

Precious resource

The town is an important centre for the lucrative marble trade being conveniently located near marble mines and also because of its proximity to the main Delhi-Mumbai (Bombay) highway.

Large blocks of marble are brought here from quarries and cut and polished, before being ferried to customers across India. The local Makrana marble was, for instance, used to build the Taj Mahal.

But it is a process which needs large quantities of water - in an area which has very little of the precious resource.

The Anant Sree Sangamarmar marble factory is one of 400 marble cutting units in Kishangarh, which between them employ nearly a 100,000 people.

Most of them have sprung up in the last decade to cater to the rising demand for marble from India's rapidly expanding middle class.

"The marble is brought here from local mines as well as those located some 250-300 kilometres away," explains factory owner Anil Kumar Agarwal.

It is cut into blocks, polished and then despatched to wholesale marble markets across India.

Groundwater use

High-speed water jets are used to spray the blocks and keep them cool while they are being cut to size.

This one factory alone uses 10,000 litres of water a day, pumped entirely from the area's groundwater sources.

Groundwater is also the only source of water for the many villagers who live in the area and depend on farming for their livelihood.

"They use so much water while we barely have enough to cover our basic sanitary needs, let alone water our crops," says Gopal Gujar a local farmer.

Like the more than two million villagers who live in the vast district of which Kishangarh is the capital, Gujar is forced to buy water from private suppliers to supplement his daily supply.

Special tankers, drawn by tractors, make the rounds of the villages in Kishangarh every day.

They sell about 5,000 litres of water for 100 rupees ($2) - about the same as the average daily wage of labourers working on the land or in the factories, and a significant portion of the 600 to 1,000 rupees local farmers earn every day.

Earlier this year, during the summer, the situation had got so bad that the government shipped water in special trains to help the local farmers overcome the drought.

Dust problem

But environmentalists and local villagers say that is not the only problem they face.

The process of cutting marble generates a huge amount of fine dust which settles into the ground.

"It covers the ground with a fine layer, which prevents rain water from percolating into the soil," says environmentalist Lakshman Singh.

Workers and large marble block
The marble factories are a major employer in the area
The factory owners say they are doing their best to help counter the problem.

The local association of factory owners is in the process of building a vast dumping ground for the marble waste and dust, which they say will prevent it from spreading.

But many argue that it is hardly going to prevent the dust from polluting the atmosphere and settling onto the ground.

Factories such as the Anant Sree Sangamarmar have also built vast tanks to recycle the water they use.

But environmentalists say it is too little too late.

"Twenty years ago, Kishangarh had two large lakes which supplied it with water through the year, even when there was little rainfall," says Lakshman Singh.

"Ever since the marble factories came up, they have dried up completely."

Green fields

So what is the solution?

Green fields in Tillonia
Tillonia's fields are green because of a rainwater harvesting scheme
Some 15 km from Kishangarh is the village of Tillonia.

Approaching it through the same arid landscape, you are suddenly confronted with lush green fields.

Here environmentalists have been working with local villagers to help recharge the groundwater by harvesting rainwater.

A network of pipes and drains transports rainwater to special pits and wells and eventually filters down into the ground.

On average, this part of Rajasthan gets anywhere between 150-400 millimetres of rainfall every monsoon season, in the months of July to September.

"In an 80,000 square feet area we can collect 700,000 litres of water for as little as 100 millimetres of rain," says Lakshman Singh.

Even during four years of drought the villagers of Tillonia never ran out of water.

"It's a traditional solution using local skills and knowledge and tapping the resources of the local community," says Mr Singh.



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