A pall of fine, talc-like dust hangs in the air over the stone quarries of Faridabad, practically obscuring the fierce northern Indian summer sun, as Bhagwana Ram talks about his 20 years in the gravel pits.

His voice, almost a whisper because of irreversible damage to his lungs, is all but drowned out by the harsh clattering of stone-crushing machines and the continuous thumps of explosive charges going off barely 100 yards from the cluster of mud huts whose roofs have turned white from stone dust.

Nobody knows how many of Faridabad's 12,000 quarry workers have died from lung disease, because most of the victims return to their home villages in Rajasthan and other nearby states when they are no longer able to work.

Long neglected by environmental and industrial safety agencies, the quarry workers -- mostly low-caste untouchables or aboriginal tribesmen -- have begun to show signs of a heightened awareness of the hazards of their occupation since the Union Carbide of India Ltd. poison gas disaster in Bhopal in December left nearly 2,000 persons dead and about 150,000 more suffering permanent lung damage.

"In Bhopal, the gas killed quickly. Here, the dust kills you slowly. That is the only difference," said Prem Bharti, secretary of the Quarry Workers Union in Faridabad, which is south of New Delhi in Haryana State.

In April, for the first time here, the workers went on strike and shut down 200 quarries in an attempt to force the quarry owners to implement a Central Industrial Tribunal order for improvement of working conditions. The tribunal is one of nine industrial tribunals to adjudicate labor disputes on the national level.

Ram, who said he is about 50 but who looks far older, runs a water hut now, selling water out of clay jugs for a few paise a bucket and earning the equivalent of $28 in a good month. It is a tough life, he admitted, but far better than his years in the quarries when he worked 12 hours a day at the stone-crushing machines for 40 cents a day and developed tuberculosis.

"I was a strong man then, but I am broken now like the stones. I feel very weak," said Ram, who said he was let go by his employer nine years ago without a rupee in compensation.

Asked if he was angry at the quarry contractors, Ram pressed his palms together and gestured heavenward, saying, "It is for God to determine. I am not angry now."

A National Quarry Workers Union official here estimated that two or three workers die each month of tuberculosis or pneumoconiosis, a crippling lung disease that, like tuberculosis, leaves its victim weak, but is not accompanied by the wracking cough common to tuberculosis patients.

Indian Health Ministry officials have estimated that 8,000 workers nationwide die each year from pollution-related tuberculosis, but there is no breakdown for stone quarry workers.

In its order for improvement of working conditions, the tribunal also ordered that water spray tanks be provided to control dust clouds and that the contractors stop engaging in two practices that the union workers charged are designed to keep them impoverished: the practice of bonded labor and a system of deducting from the workers' wages the cost of supplies used in mining the stone.

From a miner's payment of 71 rupees, or $5.77, for mining 150 square feet of stone, the employers deduct 32 rupees ($2.60) for dynamite, detonator caps and a fee to the "shape-up" boss who organizes the labor pool at each quarry. The workers demanded 100 rupees ($8.13) for 150 square feet of stone without any deduction.

Union official Bharti said that not only did the quarry owners refuse to implement the tribunal's judgment for the workers, but on the sixth day of the strike they sent goondas, or local toughs, to attack the workers, resulting in one death and dozens of injuries in clashes.

Union leaders said, and the tribunal verified, that some quarry operators routinely make loans of 400 rupees or more to new workers and charge such exorbitant interest that the worker is, in effect, in permanent debt to the contractor. Once large amounts of interest have accumulated, the workers and union leaders said, repayment deductions are made gradually so that the workers end up receiving little or no wages.

The union, which was formed four years ago but which only recently has grown to include about 2,000 of the Faridabad district quarry workers, is also demanding adequate medical care for diseased laborers, and the distribution of face masks and goggles to reduce the effects of the clouds of stone dust.

The quarry operators denied the existence of bonded labor, and claimed to have provided adequate safety measures for the workers.

Amarjit Singh, a contractor at Gurkul Inderprastha, said he provides masks and goggles to his workers, but none of the dozen workmen on the job had the safety equipment. Most merely wrapped dusty rags over their faces while they operated the stone crushers.

"If the workers were getting sick and the atmosphere was inhuman, then we would be getting sick also," Singh said in an interview in his office. He added, "People die all over the world. You shouldn't generalize. If you look at the ratio of deaths overall, it is not more here than anyplace else." Singh charged that "political agitators misguided the workers" to strike and that the contractors always have followed government occupational safety standards.

The government says that it will monitor industrial pollution more closely as a result of the Bhopal gas disaster and in the wake of increased awareness of the dangers of lung disease found in Indian industrial plants.

"Since the Bhopal tragedy, the government has become fully conscious of the hazards from toxic processes," Minister of Chemicals and Fertilizers Veerendra Patil recently told Parliament.

But the workers of Faridabad's stone quarries say they still are not sure of the government's commitment.

"I can never go to the mines again, because I am too weak," said Pahlad Marwara, 55, who is crippled with pneumoconiosis. "I don't know what will happen if my son has to crush the stones," he added. CAPTION: Picture 1, One of 12,000 quarry workers at Faridabad, India. Workers are paid about $3, after deductions, to mine 150 square feet of stone. BY WILLIAM CLAIBORNE -- The Washington Post