Blog of London Stone Indian trip. Written by London Stone MD, Steve Walley.
Kota is the heart, lungs and backbone of the Indian sandstone industry. I had arrived in Kota the previous evening after a fairly perilous drive. We had left Jaipur at about 3pm the previous day with the plan to reach Kota before nightfall. Unfortunately we had set off a little late which left us with the grim task of completing the last 1 ½ hours of the journey in darkness. The road from Jaipur to Kota is fairly narrow and is breaking up all over the place, with huge potholes littered around the road. We had to negotiate dogs, cows, motorbikes, pushbikes and other cars. Not to mention the constant procession of trucks streaming between Kota and Jaipur. Everybody drives using full beam with no exceptions. The result is that that you are completely blinded for the majority of the drive. Potholes, bikes and cows will literally spring from nowhere and the driver was constantly having to brake sharply and make last ditch manoeuvres to avoid hitting anything, especially the cows which are considered sacred to the Hindu religion. It was also not uncommon to drive round a blind blend to be faced by a truck on your side of the road attempting to over take another truck. India actually has fairly strict rules and laws in place but nobody pays much attention to them. I have never been so pleased in my life to reach the sanctuary of the bumper to bumper traffic which starts to build up a few kilometres outside Kota.
We had reached Kota in one piece and after a bite to eat and a couple of well deserved Kingfishers it was off to bed, for the next day was to be a busy one. I met up with a new supplier the following morning and we began to visit every single one of his seven stock yards based in and around the stone market in Kota. Situated just outside the main centre of Kota the stone market is a large concentration of stone producers next door to one another in every direction for a couple of miles. From the tiniest little producer making bits and pieces for the domestic market to the enormous stone shipper’s site, the concentration of stone producers in this area is phenomenal.
Stepping out of the car at the first stock yard I was met by a stone mason making kota brown 275x275 sizes. I have seen this process so many times but the speed and efficiency of the process never fails to interest me
This factory is where the majority of our supplier’s calibration is carried out. Over the past couple of years calibration has become more and more widespread. It offers cost saving benefits to manufacturers, importers and installers. Neat stacks of freshly calibrated Kota sandstone were stacked up awaiting packaging and mountains of sandstone block pavers were piled up waiting to take their turn on the overworked calibration machine. The quality of the finished stone was as good as anything I have ever seen, which was down to rigorous quality control. Every crate must be numbered and signed off which means that any quality issues can easily be traced back to an individual. The result is that the staff are extremely thorough with material packed for shipping. Any material not up to standard is either set aside for the local market or sent back to the stone masons for further dressing work.
The rabbit warren type lanes which connect the stone market are a hive of constant activity. Large trucks roll through with massive blocks of sandstone from the nearby quarries of Bhudpura. Smaller lorries arrive packed with layer upon layer of sandstone to be hand dressed and packaged. If motorized transport is not available or unattainable then there is always the trusty camel. This
method of transporting stone is common place in Kota. The sheer scale and continuity of the movement of stone in this area is staggering! I always marvel at the ingenuity of the Indians. They will always find a way to get something done.
After leaving the first yard we headed over to a small unit which constructed crates. This particular supplier produces all of their own crates from scratch, with a saw mill constantly chopping up logs into the timber struts and bearers which form the crates. All the waste timber was bagged up and sold to the local people for firewood. While I was there a constant stream of people queued up at the medieval scales which weighed out the firewood bags. Nothing was wasted.
After visiting a number of further stock yards we replaced the car with the 4x4 jeep and headed out to Bhudpura to see the mines. The first time I visited Bhudpura was 5 years ago. A highway has since been constructed making transport and travel in this region much easier. The mines stretch for miles along the highway and run almost as far as the eye can see.
The recent monsoon was a particularly heavy one and the majority of the mines we visit are heavily water logged. Any mines which had quickly drained are put straight back to work and even the half drained mines were working at a limited capacity.
We found a kandla grey sandstone mine which, while still half full of water, was still operating at a limited capacity. Massive blocks of kandla grey were being separated from the face using nothing but sledgehammers and chisels. Three Indians worked away hammering the small chisels into the slab with incredible force and remarkable accuracy. Eventually the seam is cracked open and using crowbars the massive 10 ton slab is prized away from the rock face.
The slab will then be split again horizontally before being loaded onto a lorry and delivered to the next stage of production. The blocks will be split horizontally into two again and again until they are at the correct thickness for exterior paving. Before the blocks can be split they need to spend a couple of months drying out in the sun. The splitting process will be made much easier and the stone will split more evenly if the block is given enough time to dry out. All blocks are marked with the date to ensure they are given enough time to dry out.
I was eager to witness a block being split, so even though the block was not quite dry enough to be split they were happy to show me how it was done. Using a small, sharp chisel and a heavy hammer the stone mason will hammer along the seam. The seam will gradually open up and the slab will completely separate from the block. The stone mason was doing a fine job of splitting the block until the seam broke, which was as a direct result of the block being too damp.
One of the reasons that established companies can supply better quality stone is that they have the financial resources to hold the block until it is completely dried out. Whereas smaller companies with fewer resources will be under financial pressure to get the block split, cut into paving and then sold as quickly as possible. We then visited a small site which was splitting the blocks down to produce the final sheets of stone which will be ready for hand dressing into paving.
The final visit of the day was to the cobble village in Bhudpura. This is a village which makes nothing but hand cut sandstone cobbles. This village has been the subject of intense media attention over the last 2-3 years due to the high levels of child labour which have been used to produce the sandstone cobbles. I had first visited this village 5 years ago and witnessed the disturbing site of children as young as five years old producing sandstone cobbles. Ethical trading has had a big impact on the stone industry since then and I was keen to see if there had been any effect on the ground in Bhudpura.
The cobble village is a long street with small independent cobble producers on both sides of the road. London Stone are ETI corporate members and the visit to the village was required to fulfill our Ethical trading objectives. Arriving at my supplier’s site I was met by a clean, organised and productive yard producing cobbles. The cobbles are generally produced from thick waste slab, which is delivered to the village by the truck load and deposited in piles around the yard awaiting dressing. The people working the cobbles were a mixture of men and women aged from 16 -60.
If it was at all possible I was keen to look at some of the independent suppliers in the village but I knew I would need to tread carefully in order to gain access to sites with which we had no working relationships with. My supplier understood my reasons for being there and told me I was welcome to stop the car at any point and visit any working site I chose too. I took him up on this offer and dropped in on half a dozen small independent production sites. While I did not witness any children working I did see children in and around the cobble yards. The sad conclusion I have drawn is that child labour is still involved in the production of sandstone cobbles in Kota. The main areas for concern are the families of migrant workers who actually live on the production sites. There are schools in Bhudpura for these children to attend but it’s going to take time, information and a lot of support before the problem of child labour is eradicated from this region, if it ever will be. The introduction of calibration, the growing popularity of sawn sandstone and the general mechanisation of the stone industry in Kota is transforming the way natural stone is produced here. However sandstone cobbles will always be produced from waste. London Stone source natural stone from all over the world and our risk assessment correctly identifies the production of sandstone cobbles as the key area of exposure to child labour. London Stone only work with suppliers who are certified and follow the ETI base code. In addition to this we will carry out due diligence on any supplier we use and it is not uncommon for us to spend 1-2 years negotiating with suppliers before we commit to placing any orders.