Writer and National Geographic Fellow Paul Salopek’s Out of Eden Walk is a storytelling odyssey across the world in the footsteps of our human forebears.
The red hills of north-central India are holed.
The holes look like bomb craters. Asteroid impacts. Craggy cisterns. Archaeological digs. Some of these cavities are deep enough to accommodate a two-story house. Others gape even wider, like canyons—artificial ones, hundreds of yards across—hewn by hand, by men with chisels and jackhammers. Men who are dying young and at an alarming rate. They supply India and the world with fine, rose-colored Dholpur sandstone.
“Almost every house here has lost someone to silicosis,” said Ramsahai Meena, 52, a quarry worker stricken with the incurable lung disease associated with breathing silica dust at local diggings. “I’ve lost two brothers to the sickness. My neighbors are sick.”
Meena, from a village called Roundhpura that depends on sandstone mining for its survival, emptied a large plastic bag onto his cot. It contained hundreds of pills and several inhalators that keep his dust-scarred lungs working. He gasped for air between words. Without the expensive medicines, he said, he would die.
Mining is a notoriously dangerous profession. Its pulmonary hazards, such as black lung and silicosis, are startlingly deadly even in affluent countries such as the United States, where protective breathing equipment is compulsory. But in the remote sandstone mines of Rajasthan, even paper face masks are rare, and the toll from breathing pulverized rocks appears epidemic.
Silicosis is devastating because its onset is silent. Years of breathing powdered silica crystals—released by drilling, hammering, and stone-sawing operations—slowly scar delicate lung tissues. The lungs harden. Victims can’t breathe. They waste away in agonizing chest pain, often misdiagnosed as tuberculosis. More than 25,000 applications for government aid for costly silicosis treatment have been filed in the state of Rajasthan. The real toll is likely far higher. A 20-year-old government study estimates that at least three million workers in India are at risk of silicosis.
“It starts with coughing that doesn’t go away,” said Jagannabai Meena, 55, who shares the name of many families in Roundhpura, a remote village of perhaps 70 houses surrounded by heaps of broken sandstone slabs. Jagannabai’s miner husband died in his 40s after three years of symptoms. “We didn’t even know it was called silicosis,” she said. “Doctors gave us pills but they didn’t work.”
A few hours’ visit in Roundhpura, a so-called “widow’s village” of mining families, turned up eight recent cases of respiratory illness, three of them fatal. The nearest hospital that diagnoses silicosis was a three-hour bus ride away.
The rock causing the plague is gorgeous.
Skin-soft to the touch, Dholpur sandstone varies in hue from salmon pink to brick red. It undergirds the lumpy hills of Rajasthan between the historic cities of Jaipur and Agra. Excavated for centuries, its warm color is visible in construction ranging from modern luxury hotels to ancient national monuments like New Delhi’s famous Red Fort. The rock also is exported to Europe, North America, the Middle East, and the rest of Asia.
Workers at Roundhpura and a nearby mine said that sandstone quarrying is actually declining in the region as the most accessible rock outcrops tap out. Excavations continue mostly on private property, they said, or at illegal diggings on land managed by India’s forestry service.
“But it’s still the biggest source of income here,” said Shumbhu Meena, a political leader in Roundhpura. “Twenty years ago, we raised cows and buffaloes. But the monsoon rains have dried up. So if you’re a young guy, you either mine or leave for the city.”
For Ramsahai Meena, the silicosis patient, that choice has left him destitute and struggling to inhale.
He is among the lucky few miners who have qualified for a government subsidy to help pay medical costs of more than $70 a month—half the income of an average worker. But it’s still not enough.
“Everything I’ve ever earned is going into these medicines I must swallow every day just to live,” said a skeletal Ramsahai.
His father was a miner who died coughing. Asked if he would encourage his 16-year-old son, still a student, to take up mining, Ramsahai nodded yes.
“Don’t write too many bad things about mining,” he wheezed. “It’s all we have to feed ourselves.”
This story was originally published on the National Geographic Society’s website devoted to the Out of Eden Walk project. Explore the site here.
Paul Salopek won two Pulitzer Prizes for his journalism while a foreign correspondent with the Chicago Tribune. Follow him on Twitter @paulsalopek.