In Birbhum district of West Bengal can be found the eastern edge of the Rajmahal Hills, which are flat-topped outcrops at most 500 metres in height, created by ancient flows of lava over the flat, fertile plains. The hills consist of volcanic rocks such as basalt. In the distant past, the region was home to elephants, tigers, bears, leopards, deer and a variety of other creatures. It also had, and still has, many villages of Santals, mainly in the rocky upland areas.
Borudi Pahar is one of these basalt hills rising up from the plains, in Birbhum's Nalhati block. The rock is used for road-building, for strewing between railway sleepers, and, crushed into finer grades, as a construction material for buildings. Until about 30 years ago, the hill's flat top was either forested or occupied by fields cultivated by Santals. Since then, however, the hill has been quarried for the rock, which is in high demand because of India's road-building and construction boom. Once blasted out by dynamite, the rock is broken into rubble at nearby crushers and then transported out of the region.
This tour will take us from Bhabanandapur village, at the base of the hill, up to the top of Borudi Pahar, as witnessed on an overcast day in April 2015.
The labourers are mostly Santals – men, women, and teenagers – from villages that have had their fields destroyed by the industry. Most are local, but many also come from Jharkhand, which is just a few kilometres away and is also ravaged by mining, so that their agricultural livelihoods are all but eradicated. Whatever protective gear they wear is makeshift. The owners provide no boots, helmets, masks, toilet facilities, drinking water, medical care or compensation for accidents.
According to social worker Ghasiram Hembrom, in June 2014 a Santal woman from Bhabanandapur village was passing along this road when she was caught in broad daylight by a crusher manager and raped for three hours. She was too frightened to press charges.
After this point on the road, the vehicle passed some quarry offices, where it was not advisable to take pictures. The region is controlled by a stone quarry "mafia" that could deal violently with outsiders with cameras. So the next picture is taken from the first village on top of Borudi, named Chandannagar, looking back toward Bhabanandapur.