A Passage to India / by David Johnstone

NO MAN’S LAND

Sitting on the border of Bangladesh and Meghalaya in North East India is Jaflong, an unremarkable town with a remarkable story. 

Driving by motorbike for a couple of hours north from the city of Sylhet, we arrived at ‘Zero Point’ and were confronted with an astonishing vista of people, dust and scarred landscape on the Bangladeshi side, fringed with forested mountains and a crystal-clear river towards India. Juxtaposed were local Bengalis enjoying the ‘beach’ view.

We were confronted with an astonishing vista of people, dust and scarred landscape

It was bizarre seeing local holidaymakers near such an industrialised area

It was bizarre seeing local holidaymakers near such an industrialised area

Despite the heavy industry the Goyain River is pretty clean downstream due to sand and stone filtration

Despite the heavy industry the Goyain River is pretty clean downstream due to sand and stone filtration

The boulder mines - each a separate pitch - number around two hundred and resemble a moonscape

The boulder mines - each a separate pitch - number around two hundred and resemble a moonscape

Here men and women dig for boulders with their bare hands amongst deafening noise and acrid dust, manually processing them into tiny stones, aggregate for roads and bridges.

 

Six workers had died two days before I arrived

 

It’s incredibly arduous, gruelling and dangerous work - six workers had died two days before I arrived - and they’re paid a pittance too.

As the only area in Bangladesh with a stone base (the rest of the country is alluvial floodplain) it’s a backbreaking, monotonous but necessary industry.

You really feel for the people working here - the health implications are enormous with zero safeguards - but they have no option.

It makes you realise how lucky you are. 

Despite assurances from Arafat that the area returns to ‘nature’ during the monsoon months of June and July, I wasn’t convinced. It looked like environmental carnage to me. Though, as we rode back to Sylhet, I was pleasantly surprised that the river seemed to have cleansed itself downstream, a result of sand and stone filtration.

As always the people, despite everything, were warm and welcoming and pounced on me like a pack of jackals when I took out my cigarettes. It’s the least I could do.

It was to be my final stop in Bangladesh and, quite literally, an eye-watering one.

The road back was filled with trucks and dust that made me turn black with dirt.

We managed to skirt around a big, angry demonstration too - a couple of villages had a dispute the day before, resulting in the death of two boys at a local madrasah and the burning down of both villages. Gulp.

I’d return the next day to Tamabil and cross the border into North East India to Shillong in the state of Meghalaya and continue my travels.