On the northernmost frontiers of India are
some of the highest mountain passes in the world. The building and maintenance
of these treacherous roads in Ladakh are a constant battle with exhaustion, an
exercise in endurance. The air is thin at such altitudes making manual labour
all the more difficult. But it is not locals who do the job. Men from some of
the most backward districts of West Bengal, Bihar and Jharkhand undertake an
arduous journey far from home to work on these roads. They have little choice
in the matter.
Lack of stable jobs as well as lack of year-round agricultural work forces them to go far for employment. Many work under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), which provides a legal guarantee of at least 100 days of unskilled manual labour under various public works projects. The scheme itself has come under severe criticism for the poor quality of the completed projects. Others work under the management of several civilian organisations engaged by the Indian Army.
New roads are being built continuously as the state makes its way into remoter territories. Existing roads also need constant maintenance, as they are threatened by landslides and melting glaciers. These roads lead to strategically important areas, and their upkeep is considered to be of national importance. Increased tourism in recent years has also taken its toll.
The migrant workers live in makeshift camps along the mountain ridges. Often more than 30 people are crowded into one tent. Forced to live away from their families, these men form a home away from home, taking care of each other in their newly-formed families. The work is full of peril and death is never far away.
Many perish along the
way. The others keep moving along, waiting to be re-united with their wives and
children once work gets over.
Getting up for the day. Work starts early and goes on for the greater part of the day.
Work on the road along the Shyok river in Ladakh.
Portrait of a labourer from Dumka, Jharkhand. Turtuk, Ladakh.
Sunday is the only day when the workers get some free time. It is the only day of the week when they get a chance to bathe, wash their clothes and take care of themselves.
The labourers get together at end of day to have food. A makeshift communal kitchen takes care of dinner.
There is no electricity in the camps and neither do the cellular networks work well here. A labourer uses solar batteries to charge his mobile to use as torch at nighttime. Baltistan, Ladakh.
Portrait. Migrant workers from Siuri, West Bengal in their tents. Baltistan, Ladakh.
Men returning home to a setting sun. End of day. Baltistan, Ladakh.