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Day 117: Near Sylhet, Bangladesh

Michael Palin - HimalayaThe River Pijain, in the northeast of the country, falls, not strictly from the Himalaya, but from that older rock on which Nagaland and much of western Myanmar rests. As soon as it enters Bangladesh it is harvested. Not so much for fish or crop cultivation but for stones. The country is strong on mud but very short on stone and the river bed at Jaflang, just across the border from India, is like an open-cast quarry, combed by several hundred freelance quarriers. Men, women and children, in narrow flat-bottomed skiffs, put out onto the lazy, meandering waters and dredge for stones and gravel, which they take ashore to be carried by trucks to the crushing plants that line the road for many miles.

In the West all this would be done by machines and conveyor belts: in Bangladesh, human labour is abundant and cheap. For a day's work collecting stones, unskilled workers earn the equivalent of 70 pence.

To survive in such unregulated conditions you need an eye for the main chance and while the boatmen are arguing over who gets the BBC's custom, a bright-eyed, obliging young man seizes his opportunity and offers me a ride out onto the river. It's only after the smoke-belching little outboard has kicked in and we're heading towards a very low, makeshift bridge with ten-tonne trucks rolling across it that I first take a good look at my crew. The captain is probably no more than 14 and his first officer 8 at the most.
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  • Series: Himalaya
  • Chapter: Day 117: Near Sylhet, Bangladesh
  • Country/sea: Bangladesh
  • Place: Sylhet
  • Book page no: 263

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