Foundation stones have become a norm for formalizing small and big development projects in Kashmir today. Abdul Mohamin reports on what takes place behind the curtains and ribbon-cuttings.
A major event is taking place, and ministers are present. These dignitaries are laying the foundation stone and inaugurating some development work. There is applause everywhere as bureaucrats help fix a brick before a glittering granite slab elaborately etched with the names of senior officials.
But the sheen of this stone may be hiding a different picture; a picture that is complex, and a picture that reveals the complexities involved in making this stone. The problem is not finding the right material to write upon, or finding the right craftsman to do the job. The problem lies in getting the stone writings to correspond exactly with the event at hand.
According to craftsmen, there are often last minute changes in the text that is engraved on the stones, and those changes result in the stones being rejected and replaced by others. Today, there are several stones like this, worth lakhs of rupees, which are piling up with the engravers, simply because of a change in the desired text.
An engraver who undertakes this work at the Old City says that for him, every year that last-minute rejection costs him more than Rs. 60,000. “That amounts to usually more than 15 foundation stones ordered by different departments,” he says.
“Sometimes the cost of rejected stones even runs into crores.” But some traders say there is a hidden blessing in this problem. The fact that they have to make new stones with corrected text on them helps keep their business running.
That’s one of the reasons why none of the stone carvers we spoke to chose to disclose their names. Still, others say that they are duped in this practice by those who order these foundation stones, but never turn up to take them.
One of the oldest stones we could find that had resorted to the fate of being a “leftover” was in Karan Nagar. This stone dates back to 1994, when the then Vice-Chancellor Professor Yasin Qadri, had to inaugurate a special section in the Urdu Department of the University.
The stone’s engraver in Karan Nagar says that the person who ordered the stone from him gave him a Rs 200 advance, and asked him to prepare it as soon as possible. “We prepared it quite beautifully and the price was settled at Rs.1200,” he says. “But it is still lying with us because I don’t know who the intended buyer was,” he adds.
The despondent engraver says that marble stone is still with him, because he used marble available exclusively in Kupwara. “That marble was very thick and strong,” he says. “Today’s marble and granite comes from outside Kashmir, and is not as good as this one.”
The rate of a granite slab depends on the size and the amount of text that is to be engraved on it. The average selling price can go as high as Rs.6000. Engravers say that events often get postponed or scrapped altogether, and they are the ones who suffer.
Often, they say, officials or ministers who have to inaugurate an event have their portfolios changed—and sometimes, their stones lie untouched because of changes in the ruling party, as was the case in 2008.
Workers say the problem with granite is that it cannot be worked upon again.
One engraver said today they struggle to find creative ways to find a use for the leftover granite. “The women in our neighborhood were looking for a granite working table for their kitchen,” he says. “We thought this was the best time to make use of the granite we had, and we sold it to them.” The engraver says that piece of granite had engravings on it, but it was covered up as the material was used as a base fixed over concrete.
One worker says that granite and marble became instant hits in Kashmir in 1972, after Sheikh Abdullah started building the new structure of Hazratbal using marble. It increased the demand for local limestone, which was not only used in homes, but was a preferred choice for foundation stones as well. The use of foundation stones in the past was limited to major developmental work-related events. Gradually, foundation stones became the norm for inaugural ceremonies of much smaller events, including renovations of structures.
Engravers say that in this day and age, even the police and Army are following suit. Although their events don’t see too many changes, they remain faithful customers of foundation stone dealers. “The Indian Army has been asking for an increasing number of these stones,” says one engraver. “Each officer perhaps just desires to have his name permanently engraved in something, as a reflection of his superiority.” With the onset of the Sadbhavana Operation, this demand has increased even more.
A senior official in the JK Economic Reconstruction Agency, that undertakes civic projects under the Asian Developmental Bank in Kashmir, says, “This stone is a big headache. Building a major structure is easier than getting the right foundation stone for the final event.”
Engravers claim this is an unfair practice, and point towards the civic departments, educational institutions, and tourism departments as the main culprits. Many say they hope proper judgment prevails so that lakhs of Rupees don’t go to waste, forever stuck in stone.