At Asia's oldest salt mine, the march of technology stopped generations ago. Bare-chested laborers use hand-cranked drills and gunpowder...

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KHEWRA, Pakistan — At Asia’s oldest salt mine, the march of technology stopped generations ago. Bare-chested laborers use hand-cranked drills and gunpowder to blast away the pink and orange-colored rock crystal, lucky if they earn a couple of dollars a day.

The mineral wealth of Pakistan’s craggy Salt Range has been exploited for centuries by rulers from Alexander the Great to the British colonialists of the last century. But as the economic importance of salt has dwindled, so has progress.

The vast and ancient Khewra mine 80 miles south of Islamabad is a period piece: stuffy, colonial-era offices inscribed with the names of the 32 chief mining engineers since 1872, and backbreaking, manual methods of excavation.

The mine is a maze of tunnels dug on 17 levels with glistening chambers of rock salt that repeatedly shudder with the force of controlled explosions. Small groups of laborers bore 5-foot-deep holes into the rock face with hand-cranked drills, then stuff them with gunpowder as if loading muskets, and finally set fuses and take cover. Once the dust settles they collect the chunks of salt.

The work force comprises 685 miners, all descendants of 14 local families granted hereditary rights to a job there by the British. The tradition was kept up by the Pakistani state enterprise that now manages the mine.

Mohammed Buksh, 56, an eighth-generation mineworker, said working practices were much the same as when he started 40 years ago.

“I want to get out of this job. It’s hard work, and it doesn’t pay enough. Things haven’t changed — we’re still using our hands and manual tools,” Buksh said as he took a break from stacking rocks in the oppressive heat of the mine.

He works alongside his son Shezad, 24, and three cousins, by the light of a lamp mounted on a gas cylinder. For three years they have been digging the same cavern. It is now about 30 feet high and wide, and 120 feet deep.

Buksh complained that the mine management withdrew mechanized rock-cutting and bore machines in 1998 to save money. The team gets 164 rupees ($2.75) for every ton of rock salt excavated. If they work hard, he said, he can earn about $50 a month — a poor but living wage in Pakistan.

A recent report by the International Labor Organization, a U.N. agency, said more than 100 people die annually in Pakistani mine accidents. A worker at Khewra was killed last year by a falling chunk of rock as he pried it from the mine ceiling with an iron bar.

Yet Khewra’s methodically excavated tunnels are said to be much safer than the dozens of smaller mining concessions that employ thousands of unregistered laborers across the 185-mile-wide Salt Range.

Azmad Malik, 55, a former deputy chief of the salt-workers union, said scarcely a week passes without a report of a fatal accident. “Neither the government nor the private sector is paying attention to safety,” he said.

“The miners are living in medieval conditions,” said Farooq Tariq, secretary-general of the trade-union-affiliated Labor Party of Pakistan. “They have no advantage from technological advancement. They just use their bodies and labor.”

Muhammed Saifullah Qureshi, the chief mining engineer at Khewra, conceded that little has changed since British times — and that little is likely to.

Speaking inside his colonial-vintage office, complete with a polished desk bell for summoning his secretary, Qureshi said it doesn’t pay to modernize because industrial-grade salt produced worldwide is cheap and the mine has been operating in the red for the past 10 years.

He hopes to increase exports of high-grade rock salt, which can be used to make ornaments, brings a higher price and accounts for 10 to 20 percent of the mine’s output.

Qureshi said that at the present rate of excavation — 350,000 tons a year — the mine would last for at least 350 years.

To rustle up extra revenue, Khewra is tapping into its history to attract tourists, promoting itself as the largest salt mine in the world after the 700-year-old Wieliczka mine in Poland, which is a world heritage site.

Legend has it that Pakistan’s Salt Range deposits were discovered in 327 B.C., when Alexander the Great defeated a local king in a major battle nearby. Tired horses were rested in its caves and are said to have recovered their strength by licking salt from the walls.

Hundreds of fee-paying visitors already come daily. The main attraction is an illuminated, underground mosque built from bricks of rock salt. There also are plans for a 20-bed enclosure where asthma sufferers can imbibe air around the sodium chloride deposits, believed to have curative powers.