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Working Jauna Pur. Families eke out a meager existence at a rock quarry in India

`LUXURY villas amid the green,'' says the billboard by the side of the road. But there is little green in sight, and the villas are barely visible, hidden behind high stone walls with tall, massive metal gates. The billboard and the villas are on the road to the Jauna Pur rock quarries just south of New Delhi. It's likely that the rocks, gravel, and sand used to build the villas came from these quarries. It would make sense, since they are so near.

The huge expanse of land around the quarries is like a moonscape: scarred, barren, relentlessly baked by the sun and whipped by the wind. It looks like a desert, but it's not deserted. It's home to hundreds of people - families who have joined the millions crowded on the fringes of this elegant capital city because their home villages can no longer support them.

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Like millions of migrants to other Indian cities, they have come to New Delhi to work. Those who live at the quarries are among the most fortunate, because there is plenty of work for them to do.

Whole families work in the quarries - fathers, mothers, and children starting at about age 6. The women stand all day at the bottom of pits, swinging their sledgehammers over their heads, smacking them down hard against the rocks at their feet. The rocks must be broken to about the size of a tennis ball. If they are too large or too small, they will be rejected by the building contractor who buys them.

Small children spend the day near their mothers, crawling around on the sharp, loose stones. Sometimes a mother makes a tiny hammock for a baby from a piece of cloth, and manages to hang it from two stakes while she works. A child of 4 or 5 is then in charge of rocking the improvised cradle. Because water is scarce, the cloth is usually filthy - but then, the whole family is always covered with dust from the quarries.

It takes about three days for a family of five to break enough rocks to fill a truck. The family receives 80 rupees per truckload - about $6.25. The load of rocks is then sold at a construction site for between $60 and $70.

The quarry workers belong to what Indians call ``scheduled'' castes. Mohandas Gandhi called them Harijans, children of God. In traditional India, they were known as untouchables. Officially, caste distinctions no longer exist in India. But for the most part, Harijans such as these remain economically and socially untouchable.

These quarry workers were brought to New Delhi by the contractor who buys the truckloads of rocks. They work in the quarries because they are in debt to a moneylender in their home village who has an arrangement with the contractor in New Delhi.

When they first arrived, they had to borrow money from the contractor for food and materials to build their houses - simple huts made of reeds. From then on, they have remained in his debt. He charges 30 or 40 percent interest on their loans, and can set any price he likes for their work. They are illiterate, so they do not know how much he charges, nor can they keep track of how much they owe. They can always go to him for more money in an emergency. But however hard they work, they never manage to pay off their debt.

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The money they earn is barely enough to live on. Often, their only meal consists of a paste made from red chilis and chapatis, flat cakes of unleavened wheat flour. They cannot afford vegetables every day, and they must buy water at $1 a drum. The drums are rusty, and the water is not clean. It usually lasts a family about a week, if they use it very sparingly.

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