Unpolished Hope

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Before it could have taken off Kashmir’s marble hub Batergam was turned into a garrison. A decade later when troops left, industrialists were taken hostage by the officials. Zafar Aafaq reports

Marble Story grey

A huge iron gate guards the deserted premises of Soura Marble Factory (SMF) – only standout structure – in sleepy Batergam village in frontier Kupwara district.

Started in 1983, the factory, which employed some hundred locals – working round-the-clock to transforms raw stones into polished marble sheets, proved instant game changer for the village. The noise of machines added to the vibrancy of the Batergam. But the change could not last long, as another noise was turning heads in faraway Srinagar – the noise of guns. By 1989, the factory was overtaken by army, and Batergam once again became quite, only to wake up again decades later. The mountains that guard or rather divide Batergam from the “other Kashmir” or Pakistani Kashmir, are estimated to contain around 300 million m3 of rich quality marble stones.

Inside the iron gates, Kushal Khan, who is in his late sixties, guards what remains of the factory now:  decomposed limestone, polished marble sheets, cluster of tin sheds, huge but silent machines and skeleton like lifting cranes.

For next 14 years, Khan witnessed the bloodshed in the mountains, turning once prized limestone red, with pain and solitude. The factory was now a garrison. In 2002, when guns fell relatively silent, forces vacated the premises. Happy, Abdul Majid Khan, 70, wanted to review his dream project. But the question was how as by the time troops left, Majid’s license to extract raw material from nearby mountains had expired. The nearest mountain is just 2 kms away from Majid’s factory. “Despite our proximity to the source of raw material we cannot function. It is an irony,” says Majid.

But Majid was determined to keep the factory functional. “I then arranged raw material from Ladakh, some 400 kms from my factory,” says Majid.

The cost of transporting raw material from Ladakh dented Majid’s profits. “Transporting a truckload of limestone means Rs 13000,” says Majid.

But the arrangement could not last long.  “The cost of transportation and raw material added to the final cost, thus making us irrelevant in the market,” says Majid.

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In 2014, Majid put the operations on hold temporarily at his Batergam unit. “I will open it only if I get a license to extract raw material from the local mine,” says Majid’s son Azad Khan.

Azad and his father now take care of their second unit, Sadat Marbles – located inside industrial area Zainakote, Srinagar.

Majid’s unit at Batergam was one among the eight marble processing units running successfully in 80’s. “Successive government’s indifference has stripped this village of its glory,” says Majid.

During late Mufit Sayeed’s first stint as CM a delegation of Chamber of Marble and Granite Industries, Batergam, Kupwara, sought his intervention for the revival of this sector. “He immediately understood our concern,” recalls Majid.

In 2004, Mufti set up a high level committee headed by the then chief secretary Dr S S Baloria, to identify the issues.

The demand was to grant fresh leases within the requisitioned forest area of 49 hectares; non-interference of forest/geology and mining department in the private area not falling in forest area. Apart from soft loans, marble unit owners also demanded piece of land in Srinagar where a display window can be set-up.

However, before the committee could have given its recommendations, there was change of guard and Ghulam Nabi Azad assumed CM’s chair.

In the meanwhile, unlike Majid, who started his Batergam unit by managing raw material from Ladakh, other unit owners struggled to review their factories post forces occupation.

“The occupation of industrial units by government forces left us in heavy debts. We couldn’t payback what we had borrowed from the banks to start these factories in 80’s,” says Majid.

Marble Story - Photo Credit Khalid Sayaf

Within a year after government forces vacated industrial area Batergam, three out of total eight units were shut permanently. “Two are functional but on the verge of closure because of non-renewal of lease,” says Majid.

Adding to unit owner’s woes geology and mining department has recently increased the royalty on dressed raw blocks from Rs 187 to Rs 230 per ton. “Existing policy of government viz-a-viz marble units is discouraging to say the least,” alleges Majid.

Despite availability of quality raw material in Batergam, unit owners have to go through “hectic persuasions” to get “limited access” to mines. “While government claims to put Kashmir’s marble and granite industry on global map, it is yet to be identified for marketing through SICOP,” says Majid.

Over the years, because of unchecked construction boom, industrial area Batergam has shrunk considerably, reducing it to just a few kanals now. “There are houses constructed on what used to be industrial area Batergam under officials nose,” says Majid.

Ironically, once the industrial area Batergam was turned into residential areas, people started complaining about the noise pollution from marble units. “Can you believe, instead of clearing the area of encroachment, authorities curtailed our working hours,” says a factory worker who wishes not to be named. “It is because of government officials that no industry is progressing in Kashmir. They are the main hindrance in progress,” he adds.

Majid now finds it hard to even pay the salaries after curtailment of working hours in Batergam unit. “We have asked the government to shift us to industrial area Radbugh in Dragmullah tehsil, so that we can work smoothly,” says Majid.

The chamber has requested the government to earmark 30 kanals of land exclusively for marble factories as marble-cluster under Cluster Development Program of Government of India.

In last few years, a number of young entrepreneurs have trained from Entrepreneurship Development Institute (EDI) Pampore in setting up of marble industry, but they are left disappointed after failing to secure a lease for raw material extraction. “Geology and mining department has not yet decided on these leases. We cannot wait endlessly,” says an aspiring entrepreneur from Kupwara who refused to give his name.

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