RAJOKRI, INDIA -- Banwari Lal was born on the rim of the stone crushing pits 26 years ago, and he has left only once since then. He has been smashing rocks with a sledgehammer in one particular hole for 10 years. The hole is getting bigger. Slowly.

In the afternoon, when the sun is high and brutal, Lal's wife, Choti Devi, a muscular woman who wears a pink veil, works with him. She loads heavy stones into bowls, which she hoists atop her head to carry to a truck. She heaves the rocks onto the truck bed with the power of a wrestler slamming an opponent.

The couple works from dawn to dusk with a break for lunch, filling one truck with stones. They net about $2 per truck.

"He goes mad in this heat," said Devi, explaining why she leaves her four children in the dusty, squalid village on the rim of the pits in order to help Lal smash and lift stones. "Two years ago, he got mad and ran away. We both blame it on the heat."

Sisyphus, the mythical king of ancient Greece condemned to push a rock uphill in Hades for eternity, could not have labored in a place grimmer than the Rajokri stone pits. Between 5,000 and 10,000 impoverished laborers work and live in Rajokri, on the outskirts of New Delhi, smashing rocks by hand for use in road and house construction. Most laborers work in a single hole for years, hacking at the walls.

The pits reflect the abysmal conditions endured by tens of millions of ordinary industrial laborers in India, where occupational safety laws are rarely enforced, toxic materials and other workplace hazards are commonplace and where many workers become bonded to labor contractors for years because of debts incurred for lodging, transport and other necessities.

Social and religious discrimination, as well as the overwhelming demand by India's poor for jobs of any sort, make it difficult for unskilled industrial workers to improve their lot. An estimated 90 percent of stone crushers at Rajokri, for example, are members of aboriginal tribes or of the "untouchable" caste, the lowest rung of India's still rigid social hierarchy.

Many of the workers were lured to New Delhi from drought-prone rural areas by labor contractors who promised jobs and provided loans and advances that the stone crushers must pay back from their meager wages. Social activists who have worked in the pits say the stone crushers have become virtual slaves because of their debts.

"The element of indebtedness starts from the day of recruitment," said Swami Agnivesh, chairman of the Bonded Laborers Liberation Front in New Delhi, which has unsuccessfully attempted to unionize the Rajokri stone crushers. "To expect a stone laborer to save and repay what debt they've incurred -- it's next to impossible. They get into a debt trap."

Officials at the Delhi State Mines Development Corp., a quasi-governmental agency that oversees the Rajokri pits, deny that laborers are encumbered by excessive debts. They said workers cannot borrow more than about $400 at one time from government sources and have no trouble managing repayment.

"There is no bondage here, no pressure, nothing," said a mine supervisor who asked not to be identified. "A worker doesn't have to work here to repay his loan -- he can work at another quarry. They are very happy. The laborers are happier than my {office} staff."

In interviews, workers in the stone pits did not sound very happy about the conditions of their labor, although they often seemed to push their miseries out of mind. Dangling from the clay walls, pounding rocks with their hammers, they joked about each others' girlfriends and drinking habits. But when talk turned to work, anger swelled quickly.

The reasons for their disenchantment are plenty. Water in the parched clay pits is scarce. The work is dangerous. Although there are no reliable statistics, accidental deaths in the pits are not uncommon, and a number of the crushers bore deep scars on their arms and legs from gashes caused by sharp stone fragments. Wages are well below the minimum for stone crushers set by the Indian supreme court years ago.

Those who, like the labor contractors, profit from Rajokri cannot be found in the pits. The Delhi government, which owns the rock, sells each stone crusher the right to work a section of the quarry and takes a royalty. Construction companies then buy the stone cheaply, increasing their profit on each building or road they construct.

More than $1 paid for every truckload of stone mined by the laborers goes to the Delhi mine authority to be spent on facilities for the villages around the quarries -- but most of the water pumps in the villages do not work, and laborers said doctors and nurses cannot be found. Two years ago, more than a dozen people in the villages were killed in a cholera epidemic caused by contaminated water.

The laborers accuse mine officials of stealing the money meant for development. And they say that, while politicians and social workers make numerous visits to the pits, they never deliver their promises.

"We've no electricity -- even the worst slums nearby have some electricity," said Lal Chan, 29, who has mined quartzite rocks in the same hole for seven years. "There are people who come here and say you will get electricity or water. They want something from us -- votes, money -- then they go away. Nothing ever changes."

Rajokri is a place of images from disparate centuries. As the laborers pound and smash the walls with hammers, their backs glistening with sweat in heat that can soar past 120 degrees this time of year, the scene suggests slaves captured in some medieval war. The labyrinthine machines that roar and spew clouds of dust while reducing stones to gravel seem plucked from the early industrial revolution.

But, day and night, the 20th century screeches from the sky above as jumbo jets from many nations swoop low in and out of New Delhi's busy Indira Gandhi International Airport.

"I feel angry when I see the planes," Banwari Lal said as a Boeing 747 banked on approach above him. "They're looking at us. Even I want to fly. Why shouldn't I fly?"

An old man, precariously propped on a clay ledge of the pit wall, laughed at Lal. "The only time I'll fly here is when I quit the world," he announced. "When I die, obviously then I will fly."