UDAIPUR — A toxic waste dump in India where decades-worth of carcinogenic waste from the country’s marble industry has created an illusion of snow-covered plains has become an unlikely—if hazardous—tourist attraction, film location, and beauty spot in the princely state of Rajasthan.
The marble business is, along with tourism, one of the biggest earners for Rajasthan, and marble-cutting and polishing firms line the roads outside major towns such as Udaipur and Jaipur.
The work is hazardous, however, due to the carcinogenic dust and slurry created as a byproduct of the trade.
According to some health professionals and doctors, most of those involved in the dirty business of cutting and polishing the stone, which is abundant in the surrounding hills and exported throughout the country and around the world, will at some stage suffer from respiratory diseases.
Poor health and safety practices are endemic throughout India, and mean that many workers labor in factories and cutting plants without adequate masks to filter the air or offer protection from breathing in the dust.
But this hasn’t stopped Bollywood filmmakers, pop video producers and even newly married couples from rushing to the town of Kishangarh, Asia’s biggest marble trading center. Kishangarh is about 60 miles outside Jaipur, where the local marble producers association has, since the 1970s, operated a gigantic dump for the carcinogenic byproduct of their trade, occupying several acres.
Nothing can grow on the white calcium carbonate which is the primary chemical constituent of marble, leading some romantically-minded image hunters to have the toxic dump of Kishangarh stand in for the more inaccessible snowfields of Kashmir in India’s Himalayan highlands in pictures.
Over the past two months several music videos have been filmed at the site, with couples dressed in leotards, tights, and gloves performing around the trunk of a dead tree, or singing from the back seat of a vintage, open-top car in Punjabi. The celebrated Indian comedian Kapil Sharma is among those who have used the dump as a location.
Kishangarh is said to have more than 25,000 marble trading firms, and the industry employs as many as 100,000 people, almost two-thirds of the city’s estimated population of 160,000. Much of the city was built in marble by generations of maharajahs. The Phool Mahal palace is a part of the Rajasthani tourist trail, and the town is also famous for a unique style of highly stylized, courtly painting in which faces and necks are elongated, eyelids appear to droop and chins are pointed and drawn out.
NK Vohra, a surgeon practicing at Kishangarh, told The Times of India that the quality of air is so poor in the area surrounding the town that it even prevents timely healing of wounds, “It takes almost double the normal time for any wound to heal up here. The poor quality of air weakens the immune systems of those who are exposed to the dust directly.”
One might think that such toxicity would be enough to deter even the most naïvely positive bride, however newly married couples are among those flocking to the site to take souvenir pictures of their big day. A local wedding photographer said, “The snow white background makes pictures vibrant.”
While in other countries the owners might be excused for hurrying to close the site off from the public in anticipation of legal threats, this being India, the operators are taking a different, more enterprising course of action.
Suresh Tak, president of Kishangarh Marble Association, told The Times of India that there is a plan to develop sheds for parking, adding, “So far we don’t charge anything, but maybe, in the future, to meet the maintenance costs, we will.”