Salt workers pose for a photograph at the salt pans near Marakkanam, just north of Pondicherry (now renamed Puducherry, its original name before the French arrived, although everybody continues to refer to it as Pondicherry, or just ‘Pondi’). The sea is allowed to flow into ‘pans’ (not unlike paddy fields) and then it evaporates over several days under the hot sun, leaving behind a layer of salt which is gathered by hand. Salt has been gathered this way in India since time immemorial.
Even when I took this photograph in 2006, on my first visit to South India, it struck me as a harsh environment in which to have to earn a living. Since then, I have learned more.
Salt is, and always has been, an essential commodity, especially for a population living in hot conditions, but when the British in India imposed a salt tax, this eventually led to the ‘Salt March’ led by Gandhi to Dandi, on the Gujarat coast, where he symbolically gathered salt at the coast after a 200km march, an action that contributed to the loosening of the hold that the British Raj held on India.
In Gujarat alone, approximately 112,000 labourers are employed in the industry (Gujarat State Law Commission figures).
In all, there are approximately 1,000,000 people employed across a total of nine states harvesting salt. Typically, women and girls make up most of the workforce.
But the conditions that the salt miners labour under today are little better than they were then.
They suffer eye problems and blindness from constant exposure to the sun reflected off of the brilliant white of the salt pans. Skin lesions from the salt are common. After a while, feet become septic and absorb salt; so much so, that according to some accounts even after death the salt content in their limbs are so high that hands and feet are difficult to burn during cremation (Daily Telegraph 24/2/10).
In addition, the labourers suffer from many of the other problems common across the labour force, such as exploitation by contractors and money lenders, and poor educational opportunities for their children. There is often inadequate housing, drinking water and food, and an absence of primary healthcare (Indian Express 26/4/16).
It is frequently said that saltpan workers have three ways to die: first gangrene, second TB (tuberculosis) or third blindness.
Their life expectancy is 50 – 60 years.
The hardships and problems they face are slowly being brought to the public’s attention, but clearly there is still a very long way to go before they enjoy what most would regard as decent working conditions.