Burning Asphalt in the Himalayas: Road Workers on One of the World’s Highest Highways

Billowing black smoke from burning asphalt

Thick black smoke envelopes the figures as they slog among the leaping flames. The men shovel dark gray piles of gravel, mixing it with hot asphalt. Grime coats their skin and clothing as they labor, with only scarves to protect their lungs from the noxious fumes.

The Leh-Manali Highway runs through impressive mountains.

By way of contrast, the road laborers are surrounded by a landscape of stark beauty, where rugged mountains tower under a clear blue sky. These workers toil on one of the highest roads in the world – a highway running from the town of Leh in the state of Jammu and Kashmir, to Manali in Himchal Pradesh.

A scarf offers scant protection from the fumes and dust.

Photographer Peter Porta and his wife traveled to the highway to take these pictures of the laborers after reading about their circumstances. “I wanted to photograph these people as I saw them,” says Porta. “Strange figures enveloped in a dark smoke, working hard in the middle of nowhere; with no gloves, with no mask, with nothing to protect them from the huge flare-ups produced by the burning asphalt.”

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Black smoke billows from an open fire.

“We spoke with some of the workers (our driver turned out to be a good translator) and they agreed [to let] me take some pictures of them,” Porta explains. “Most of them came from other regions of India and they were hired by the Indian government during the summer months for a very low salary. They were working under dangerous conditions with obsolete gear, risking their lives every day.”

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Some workers wear stout boots; others manage with sandals.

The Leh-Manali Highway also cuts through some challenging terrain. The road, whose average elevation is over 13,000 feet (4,000 meters), is bordered on both sides by jagged mountain ranges and passes through a region of cold semi-arid desert. The greater part of Jammu and Kashmir state is in the Himalayas.

The road workers appear as silhouettes within the smoke.

Due to its location, the road is only open from May or June to mid-October. Once the warmer weather is over, the highway becomes buried in snow and is unusable. Even in the summer months, drivers have to contend with snow meltwater forming icy streams that gush across the highway as well as the risk of landslides. Then there is altitude sickness to consider.

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The highway is constructed to be able to endure trucks like this one.

The creation and maintenance of the highway is the work of India’s Border Roads Organisation (BRO), a partially military organization responsible for the roads in India’s border areas. The highway itself passes by an army base at Sarchu, on the Himachal Pradesh and Ladakh border. Perhaps this is one reason why it is built to withstand the heaviest of military vehicles.

Without the latest machinery, this seems an exhausting process.

In order to keep the roads in good condition, the BRO employs laborers. Most of the workers photographed here aren’t local but arrived from other regions of India. They are hired on a casual basis for little money and are not full employees of the BRO.

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Inhaling smoke from the burning asphalt causes serious respiratory problems.

The dangerous conditions that Porta mentions are many. For one, the workers are in close proximity to the open flames of burning asphalt but without wearing any protective gear – and so they are exposed to fumes and dust. Pragya, an NGO that works with disadvantaged communities, says that more than 70 percent of migrant road and dam laborers in the Himalayas suffer from respiratory diseases such as TB or asthma.

Workers are not provided with enough water to have a proper wash, which can lead to skin problems.

As mentioned earlier, the Leh-Manali Highway travels through high-altitude desert. Yet despite the colder weather, the workers, many of whom come from milder areas, are not given any warm clothing and must provide what they can themselves. Worse, some cannot afford to buy the extra garments – for themselves or their loved ones.

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The work of laying the roads is strenuous, even without winter’s snowy weather.

If the working conditions are bleak, the living conditions aren’t much better. The workers live in makeshift camps made of materials such as polythene sheets, bits of cloth and pieces of corrugated iron – and this surely serves as insufficient shelter, given the environment. Nor are there adequate sanitation and hygiene facilities, increasing the risk of eye and skin diseases.

A worker stands before the hot asphalt.

In this remote region, the migrant road workers may find themselves isolated from towns or villages where they might get food supplies. Since they are outsiders, they are also without support systems and are not covered by local medical or welfare services. And, if they have brought their families with them, their children may be many, many miles away from a school.

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Working without gloves

The workers of the BRO on the Leh-Manali Highway are performing an invaluable service. Without them, transport across the region would be considerably more difficult, if not impossible, and it’s deeply unfortunate that they do not receive better treatment and good facilities. “Once more, we contemplate how human life is underestimated in the name of progress, giving preference to economic and military interests,” Porta reflects.

Horrific burns would occur if hot asphalt were poured onto bare feet.

Porta also says of the images: “I collaborated with my wife Laia Vinsac on this personal project. In my opinion, it’s much better being two people with these kinds of projects, allowing you to cover all the situations as a team.”

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The sunlight can be strong during the day, but the nights are freezing.

We thank Peter Porta for sharing these photographs and for giving us an insight into the plight of the workers on this incredible – and hazardous – highway.

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6

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