The shortened lifespan of the quarry workers of Uttar Pradesh is spent breaking stones and residing among the pollution- laden boulders

Mired with sandy roads and rocky terrain, the landscape in south-western Allahabad creates a remarkable mirage under the blue sky.

Some of the larger rocks here have sizeable craters formed in them -- a sign of their depletion over time, by an activity that is hazardous yet critical to the survival of many.

The ground water accumulated on the surface of these depressions make them appear like lakes, adding to the visual serenity.

In Shankargarh, close to the Uttar Pradesh-Madhya Pradesh border, entire families, including children, crush boulders of silica for a living; the land is mostly rocky and inapt for cultivation, leaving its inhabitants no choice.

An overwhelming majority of these workers belong to the Scheduled Castes category, namely, Jatavs, Kumbhis and Kols (though they are anthropologically tribal).

Mahendra Pratap Singh, the ‘raja’ of Shankargarh, has mining rights over its 46 villages, which not too long ago were fed on bonded labourers. While the old system, where the raja would lease out plots to contractors who in turn employed locals, majority of them landless and bonded labourers, at exploitative rates, is no longer functional, the quarry workers are yet to free themselves from the hold of intermediaries.

Hari Lal Saket, a Jatav who has been crushing stones for over two decades, relates how the ‘dalals’ or the intermediaries enjoy the benefits of their hard slog.

“We have to break stones for at least eight hours to earn Rs 130 --- that's the daily rate. My wife, son, daughter, brother, his family, everyone chips in. But what happens? They earn many times more by selling off what we crush.”

The local contractors or thekedaars purchase a trolley of silica sand, roughly 5-6 tons, for Rs 800 from the quarry workers. Usually the workers are given set targets or blocks of stone to crush within a certain time. The thekedaars then sell the sand, depending upon its quality, texture and colour, for, on an average Rs 400 per ton. The finished product is sold at almost four times this rate.

Not only do the stone crushers dish out money to purchase the blasting kit -- typically, wire, cap and ‘khadi’, they submit Rs 100 per trolley as royalty to the ‘raja’. “The munshi comes and collects it on his behalf,” says Saket.

To fulfil the given targets, the stone crushers employ as many members of the family as possible. They share the work of breaking stones and then transporting them manually onto the trucks, some of which come from as far away as Gonda, Basti and Bahraich districts.

If required or to show solidarity, they may invite members from other mines or unemployed youth in the area to join them.

“If anyone wants to join us we let him (or her). How many will get work as labourers? We can't fight the rich and the upper castes. If this stops or they put restrictions, we will die of hunger,” says Inder Kol.

Curiously, as he speaks, his infant son is busy hammering away at a small stone. “Dekh dekh ke sikh raha hai (He is learning by observing us),” Inder exclaims.

In the mid-Nineties, an NGO called Sankalp initiated a programme to help these communities by organising small ‘self-help groups’ against their struggle for just wages and by educating them about their exploitation.

As a result, many of them obtained leases to at least 10 acres of stone quarrying on state-owned land, eliminating contractors. On the domain of the ‘raja’ who seemed reluctant to deal directly with the stone-crushers, it was a rare victory.

However, the economic and living conditions of these inhabitants have hardly ever improved.

The quarry workers live in cramped hutments -- in most cases, in the vicinity of their site work -- with negligible sanitation facilities and the constant exposure to silica dust. The threat of the crippling Silicosis is compounded by the scanty medical facilities in the region and no designated health centres for treating silicosis patients.

At a small hamlet, not too far away from Inder's quarry, Rajkumar Rawat, 25, rests on a cot after a long day at work. Of late, he has been complaining of Silicosis-like-symptoms. But “what else can we do?” he rues.

Various reports have highlighted how silica stone crushers have a low life span, something which the inhabitants of Shankargarh are fully aware of.

“Men hardly cross 40 here,” says Rawat.

Low literacy rate, coupled with lack of employment opportunities-aggravated by the restrictions on selling forest produce -- and absence of residential rights compel the inhabitants to live by the mines.

Various reports have also suspected that child trafficking runs rampant in the area.

Yet, there are some who have neither the physical strength nor grit to toil in these mines. They escape the grind, in the most usual manner, by migrating to the cities. Many have left for Mumbai and Calcutta to work in the juice factories.

“Not everyone has the strength to break stones all day.”