Indian sandstone’s alter ego: Polycaro visits India

By now, most actors in the natural stone sector have gotten acquainted with the Initiatief TruStone. In 2019, Flanders and the Netherlands joined forces and founded a multi-stakeholder initiative with a responsible procurement policy for sourcing natural stone from high-risk areas, supported by governments, companies, NGOs and unions. Chain transparency and care is the common thread throughout this story.

Not always obvious, but not impossible either. After all, bundled strength results in more impact. To truly understand what this is about, there is the following advice: Go see for yourself, with your own eyes, on location, where you, as a company, buy your materials from. Start the dialogue with local suppliers and search for solutions that aid all parties.

Indian sandstone is used to furnish many driveways, streets, and village squares throughout Belgium, but also in England, France, and the Netherlands many people love this product. This is because the Indian Kandla cobble stones are a great alternative to the Belgian Grès du Condroz. The reason? Very simple: Kandla cobble stones are cheaper and have shorter delivery times for any required quantity. A dream scenario for many and especially for tendering governments. Or is it?

In 2005 the Dutch NGO Arisa (operating under the name of India Committee of the Netherlands until 2019) published a not-so-rosy report, which brought to light numerous unethical practices and violations of human rights, casting an unpleasant shadow on the origin of these Indian cobble stones. The report, titled: ‘Budhpura ‘Ground Zero’ – Sandstone quarrying in India’ turned out the be the starting point for many projects, initiatives and collaborations that, over the years, were founded between governments, NGOs and a number of engaged companies. A long road with many thorny side roads, but not impassable.

When, in 2015, the national media also got wind of this delicate origin story, some tendering local authorities were put under pressure. The term child labour had been used, with an adverse impact on politics. A bigger budget was made available for, of course, more expensive, Belgian-made cobble stones.

But is changing the source of your purchase the right solution? Definitely not. Or perhaps even: on the contrary. After all, the story is a complex one, in which each party has their own personal part to play.

To understand this complexity, there is only one solution: travel to the source. So, that is what happened.

The process

The heart of the Indian sandstone production and, more specifically, of the Indian stone tiles or cobble stones Kandla Grey and Kandla Ochre, is found in Budhpura, which is part of one of the poorest regions of the country: Rajasthan. 70% of the entire Indian sandstone production is concentrated in this region.

The tiles are cut by hand from sandstone waste flows that are mined from the hundreds of stone quarries that characterise this region. Usually, it is women who cut these residual fractions in the so-called ‘cobble yards’, while the men work in the quarries, mining the sandstone and splitting it into tiles. Sometimes, these yards are part of the patrimony of the quarry owners themselves.

Which, in terms of chain transparency, significantly simplifies the due diligence process. In the other case, independent ‘tractor owners’ purchase residual fractions from the quarries and dump them in the yards or… at the family residences. The latter you can take very personally: in front of every home throughout Budhpura, there are piles of stone waste, which, using a hammer and chisel, the women, in blindingly colourful saris, chop to the size and thickness we deem suitable here in the West for our garden paths, streets and squares. What is being processed into a perfect finished product in the residences and the cobble yards, is bought up and exported to European buyers by exporters. In the end, these importers ensure that the Kandla tiles and cobble stones ultimately end up at our retailers, at tendering authorities, and, as the final step, at the end-user.

So much for the introduction. Nothing wrong with that, you’re probably thinking. Time for some details.

The challenges

The 2005 Arisa report made clear that there are quite a few painful barbs attached to our beautiful grey and brown cobble stones. Child labour turned out to be rampant. Not very surprising, as it is not a fact that stands on its own but, is a consequence of a complicated web, spun by the rags of poverty and is the result of failure to follow the legislation closely. To better understand this problem, several other circumstances need to be explained. Because one thing depends on another.

OH&S

Sandstone mining in high-risk countries is plagued by dropout of workforce due to lung disease. Where in the past this was considered to be tuberculosis, we now know better. Silicosis or dust lung is the cause among many ill miners and is responsible for a far-too-high mortality rate at young ages. The absence of personal protective equipment, such as face masks, and the lack of use of water-driven machinery in mining lies at the core of this issue.

Social protection and compensation

Rajasthan is one of the poorest regions of India. Many labourers in Budhpura never went to school and are therefore illiterate. Moreover, a large part of the labourers consists of migrant or seasonal workers. They are, by majority, part of the lowest and most discriminated segment of the population, better known as castes. These people have barely any knowledge about legal social protection they might be entitled to, for example in the event of sickness or death. As a result, women who are left to fend for themselves after their husband dies, find themselves in a very financially and socially vulnerable position.

Because the orders placed in Europe come in rather irregularly (as part of ongoing projects), virtually all labourers are paid at piece rates. This means their income is dependent on the quantities they have produced. A logical consequence for a single mother is that she puts her children to work in the cobble industry so they can support the family’s livelihood.

Budhpura has hundreds of sandstone quarries where the Kandla Grey and Kandla Ochre are mined

Moreover, it turns out the minimum wage for factories, quarries or coble yards is not always respected and as a result the collected rupees turn out to be insufficient to provide for basic needs. As a result, even in ‘normal’ two-parent families, it is not uncommon that the children also help with the stone cutting.

Furthermore, in India, it is common practice for labourers to be paid by way of an advance (of approximately three months’ wages), which makes them dependent on their employer. Legally, it is not always possible to qualify such situations as forced labour or worse, slavery, but unofficially, this places people in a grey area that causes labourers to become indebted to their employers. As a result, most families have been working for one and the same quarry owner for 3 or 4 generations. These quarry owners provide their workers with on-site rickety homes for them and their families to live in. For Indian standards, this is a quite common situation, while in the West it is absolutely unthinkable. Children living in the quarry, come into contact with the only future prospect the region has to offer from early on in their life or in the worst cases, they inherit the debts of their parents when they die.

Education

Public schools score below par in terms of infrastructure and educational content. Teachers are unmotivated or simply don’t turn up. The benefit of going to school then quickly becomes an activity that leads to nothing and that is better off being replaced by the only thing the region has to offer: using the children as an extra source of income. Short-term thinking is typical for those living in poverty.

Together with ARAVALI, Manish Singh, secretary of the local NGO Manjari, does life-changing work on site

Because lack of education is a cross-generation issue, the importance of education is simply unknown to certain communities. Children who are working: is considered ‘normal’, even while Indian legislation forbids working for children under the age of 14 years (or, in the case of hazardous or heavy labour, such as the natural stone industry, under the age of 18 years). For the problem is not so much in the lack of adequate legislation, but more in lacking compliance and control of it.

General working conditions

Fresh drinking water, first-aid kit, separated (functioning) toilets, shaded work areas, personal protective equipment, job security, health insurance, receiving a living wage, payment via bank transfers instead of cash, knowledge of social rights, etc. …it is a long wish list of items and issues that are not or barely being addressed. Illiteracy and a lack of education and future prospects also result in personal healthcare being neglected, alcohol abuse, lack of personal hygiene, etc.

Is there any light at the end of the tunnel?

The above list only summarises a fraction of what the Arisa report addressed in 2005. As mentioned, numerous organisations and collaborations have since worked to gain insight into the complexity of the problem via extensive studies and projects on location. And they appear, although laborious, to be coming to fruition . After all, ‘Customer satisfaction’ is a strong motivator for many local factories, yards, and quarry owners, are therefore prepared to listen and act to fulfil the wish lists of the buyers.

In recent years, from the buyers’ side, alarms were clearly raised to make it clear that, in Europe, child labour is an absolute ‘no go’. Since then, it has been a phenomenon that is hardly or no longer observed in the region. That is to say, not in the (better) quarries, factories, and yards. Since a few years there are large panels at the entrances that read ‘Child Labour Free Zone’ in Hindi and English. More difficult is it to monitor home-based units where it is mainly women who do the stone cutting, combined with household work and looking after the children.

For a few years now, some yards have made additional efforts, culminating in 3 of the larger yards now being referred to as ‘model yards’. In these model yards, fresh drinking water is available, the women use working gloves, shelters were built to create shaded working areas, a first-aid kit is present, there are separate toilets for men and women and some model yards even invested in the construction of a playground and day care for the many young children that are brought along by their mothers.

Top down

As trivial as some things may sound to us Westerners, the first steps towards success are taken by implementing small scale modifications on the ground. For employees, families, and children on site, they often make a big difference. After many years of effort, those differences are measurable and visible in the companies, the villages, and the schools in the region. The favourable results were achieved because governments, companies and NGOs in BE/NL and elsewhere have joined forces with the local companies and NGOs of Budhpura. After all, it is both a top-down and a bottom-up story. In particular, we speak of the financial support from the Dutch and Flemish government, the NGO Arisa, and companies like Beltrami, Stoneasy.com and London Stone, who have taken the lead in and supported these projects from the start.

Bottom up

All of these efforts would not have been able to yield the results they have, without the collaboration in the field with ARAVALI, an organisation that bridges the gap between the Indian government and local organisations like Manjari. The latter has done groundbreaking work by settling itself in the heartlands of Budhpura and, in doing so, winning the trust of local companies, the families and the children. By informing the community about their rights and teaching the people crucial things about health and safety, they stand stronger today, are becoming more emancipated, are learning to assert themselves and to think along about changes.

Some families of miners have been living in the same quarry for 4 generations

Health insurance turned out to be a good way to obtain the trust of the community and companies. The frequent lobbying for more and better teachers in the region is also bearing fruits. By this point, the numbers have doubled and 75% of the children between 6 and 14 years old are going to school. Toilets were installed in public schools, and because the region offers very few alternative sources of income, sowing courses for girls and electrician courses for boys were setup. The children also make frequent use of the local library and recently a cricket field was built, because children simply need to be allowed to be children.

Model project

The success of the ongoing Child Labour Free Zone project is enticing other high-risk sectors, such as the tea and shoe industry, to move to Budhpura. It is almost seen as a model project, giving inspiration for how things could be done differently when local and international businesses start to work together with the local communities. Because even if the motivation with local traders to invest in a more social policy is primarily financial profit, this will eventually lead to an increase in awareness, where people realise that things must be done differently. So, we are definitely at a turning point, but there is much work yet to be done. And that is where you, the reader of this story as a buyer, trader, prescriber, processor or end-user can truly contribute.

What is it you can do?

Are we trying to impose our culture on them? Not at all. There is plenty of globalisation and uniformity already. But that is not an excuse to look away from our own responsibilities, nor from the responsibility towards the OESO guidelines concerning socially responsible entrepreneurship.

This story begins with witnessing through your own eyes. This means that as a buyer you not only negotiate with your exporter in Delhi or Jaipur, but you have to travel to the quarry, the factory or the cobble yard itself, to those women and men who cut your stones resulting in that product that makes you successful. Consult with your supplier about why a better social policy and chain transparency is a requirement for doing business. Your personal presence and involvement will undoubtedly be taken seriously. Find out what changes can be made today or tomorrow and look for solutions together. Gloves, dust masks, higher wages, health insurance and school-going children all make an essential difference.

Consider whether you’re prepared to pay more if it guarantees a higher wage for the employees. Consider whether your partner is the right partner, just because he can supply at a lower price. Consider how you might be able to reward those of your partners who do invest in a better social policy. Together, forge a bond of trust by, for example giving them guarantees for long-term collaboration. Show them that you’re serious about what you say, that you’re prepared to think along, but that you do want value for your money.

It is not just the importers who must take their responsibility, this story concerns every link in the chain. So, even as the retailer, processor, contractor, prescriber and even the end-user, you can play your part in this by purchasing from a distributor who communicates transparently about his supply chain or by joining initiatives that strive for chain transparency, like TruStone

Joined forces

Of course, this is a long and difficult road if you act alone as an individual. Recent years have shown that joined forces can result in effective changes. But that force can and must become ever bigger and stronger. At the start, only 2 companies participated in the No Child Left Behind project: Stoneasy.com and Beltrami. Later on, they received support from London Stone. However, thanks to government support and the collaboration with Arisa, ARAVALI and Manjari, many great achievements have been realised to date. Let this be a call to the companies in the West, to join in and to help this project forward.

Varun Sharma, Programs Director at the Indian NGO ARAVALI, lobbies between local NGOs in the field and the government

Of course, the chance of success for TruStone, the multi-stakeholder initiative between Flanders and the Netherlands, is only as high as the number of actively participating members. The more members demanding transparent insight into the chain they are part of, the more pressure is put on the factories and the quarries. Customer satisfaction, remember? Engage with doing your own due diligence and support and enforce the OESO guidelines. Be prepared to work towards a better policy together with the owners of the quarries and factories.

TruStone is aimed at both importing and non-importing companies, but just as much at tendering governments, and yes, they too play an important part in this story. Choosing materials based on the best price proposition is simply fostering unethical practices in the countries of origin. Moreover, unrealistic delivery deadlines add to the pressure on the production units. This leads to exporters ‘shopping around’, making them more likely to cut corners in the due diligence process. In specifications, ask about the supplier’s due diligence process and their vision and plan of action. According to Manjari, asking for certificates and audits isn’t the most important thing, but asking for proof that shows that the supplier is engaged in a process to improve the situation on the ground is.

The question is…

This story, today, is about individual successes and small victories for the community as a whole. Because even if, in our Western mindset, the sky is the limit and everything needs to happen in the blink of an eye, in the heartlands of Budhpura, we as Westerners, are simply not going to change habits and customs that have survived for generations. Instead, we are confronted by the inertia of the reality over there. That reality is not something we need to try to overturn, because we don’t know everything, and we don’t know if we know best. But we do need to be aware and we must keep our eyes open to see what we can do. Our knowhow tells us that small changes can make big differences and that those differences can be achieved when we combine groundwork on site with pressure and engagement from the side of the international buyers.

And yes, this is a warm call to all of you: importers, retailers, prescribers, processors, and tendering governments. We each have to play our part in this story, no matter how small or big. The question is: What are you going to do?


Polycaro nr° 70 – issue June 2020 – www.polycaro.be (Dutch & French version)
Unique b2b-magazine for ceramics, composites & natural stone in the Benelux

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