Indian Salt Miners

salt-workers

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.

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43 thoughts on “Indian Salt Miners

  1. Was aware of the salt pans of Kutch, Gujarat, but not of Pondi.
    It is so easy to pick up a one kilo package of Tata Salt from a hypermarket, which is what we all, urban Indians, do. This is not a well known fact, the occupational hazards of this industry. So unfortunate. Thank you for this post, Mick.

    Gandhiji’s Dandi Salt March, started from Sabarmati Ashram in Ahmedabad, was indeed a watershed event of our Independence movement.

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  2. Thanks for the informative post, Mick. I’ve heard the plight of the salt miners before and the health issues that arise from this work. It pains me that these conditions don’t improve and that so much suffering, which is unnecessary, happens anyway.

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  3. There’s a great documentary in the late 1990s called the Saltmen of Tibet that is worth a view. Salt harvesting is a harsh way to make a living and now that the Chinese have their hands in Tibet, lithium harvesting can be added to that list. Shameful really. It’s not just India where salt harvesting is so challenging, Peru and Bolivia are in similar boats. I bet there are many more countries that I am not aware of. Salt (among many other goods) were restricted last year in Nepal as part of the Indian blockade – a powerful attempt to influence Nepali politics which failed. Nothing is ever straightforward. Who knew salt could be a weapon??

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    1. I suppose that anything can be a weapon, given the circumstances. In the west, we generally don’t realise the importance of salt in some countries, since so many of us eat a lot of processed food, which already has salt added. therefore we don’t find ourselves in situations where we need it for our health.
      I’ve not heard of that documentary before; I shall have to look out for it.
      Thanks, Kate.

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  4. Mick,it’s great that you have chosen to highlight the problems of salt workers. Unfortunately, workers are under paid and under privileged, exploited most of times across all industries. So thoughtful of you to highlight it.
    You should visit sambhar salt pan in Rajasthan whenever you’ are in India. It’s barely one and half hour drive from Jaipur.

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    1. I read a little about that one when i was looking up some references for the blog post, Arv. I don’t think I’d heard of it before.
      Yes, even now in the 21st Century, as you say, workers are still exploited in all industries. I sometimes really doubt whether the world is making any progress at all.

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      1. Sambhar is a great place quite like the famous Rann of Kutch in Gujrat. It has featured in many Bollywood movies as a shooting location. It is one of leading salt producing sites in India.
        I think the foundation of industrialisation, colonialism and capitalism all lay in people and worker exploitation. Slavery is one example. Unions developed because of exploitation.

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            1. And the same problems follow. It seems they follow the same route from start-up to full production – the same pattern – with poor conditions for workers and trashing the land. And it always takes a long time to sort these things out.

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  5. I didn’t realize that the working conditions for them were so awful! Thanks for shining a light on this problem, and I hope that they are treated better, sooner rather than later. Salt is pretty cheap, so it would seem to me that they could raise the price in order to improve the lives of the people who work the salt fields?

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  6. I didn’t know about the salt miners in Pondi. Most of the times we hear about the miners in Gujarat. Nothing would change unless and until these people become aware of their rights and, that awareness comes through education. I hope the next generation would not suffer and let the big companies exploit them in this way!

    Thanks for the write-up, Mick…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think the problem is that the big companies are so powerful, it is hard to challenge them. And governments need to be more proactive in how they deal with the issues. I’m afraid things change very slowly!

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    1. There is a little intervention at state level, but as is often the case this is far too little. Various NGOs get involved, but until there is more widespread knowledge of the situation and pressure on companies to do something about it, I doubt things will improve much. Big Business always seems to have the whip-hand.

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  7. I found this a fascinating read but also rather sad. Awful statistics. Are the salt fields only in the south? I expect it offers a lot of chance for paid employment but at what cost. Another lady I follow who Blogs about India is ” bemoaning” the loss of traditional India to progress. Its hard to say whether we would welcome change for the better or worry we have lost our Identity. That is what she is asking. Anyway stunning picture. I have found out a lot through your Blogs so thanks. PS I usually get a note when you post something but now it appears I ” don’t follow you” so its a quirk of Wp and will clock again. Happy Christmas

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    1. There are salt fields in 9 states, many in the north (Rajahsthan and Gujerat, for example). And yes, paid employment, but piss-poor wages in dreadful conditions. What many people in the west don’t appreciate is that there is no social security safety net in India, so even starvation wages under conditions of virtual slavery will be taken by people as an alternative to actual starvation. I certainly don’t bemoan the loss of ‘traditional’ India in that sense. I might find seeing people struggling to survive in those conditions as ‘colourful’ or ‘interesting’, but I wouldn’t want to live that way – who would? I’d rather they earned more money, lived in decent conditions, and that I had to pay more when I was over there. It doesn’t mean anyone has to lost their identity; if anything, they gain it along with dignity and well-being.
      I have heard of WP apparently unfollowing people – if you click on my icon on this notification, it should give you that status. Happy Christmas to you and yours, too.

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        1. I didn’t, Jackie, so I went and had a look with interest. I didn’t read all of her pieces, but got a flavour, and it seems I would partly agree and partly disagree, although I may not have fully appreciated her point of view.
          Yes, it is sad when traditional customs and trades disappear, but with a huge caveat. In the UK, for example, we no longer indulge in bear-baiting, or hanging children for stealing sixpence. We no longer have huge numbers of the poverty-stricken working awful hours in dreadful, dangerous, conditions in mills. And I don’t suppose that anyone would want that back. But, we also have lost traditional blacksmiths, maypole dancing and a lot of the sense of neighbourhood that was common in my grandparents’ generation.
          So some change is good, some is bad, and this is true in India, too.

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          1. Yes its an interesting conundrum isn’t it? I worry we have lost the sense of being ” English” and by that I merely mean losing our traditions. When was the last time anyone wore national dress but in India, for example and certainly lots of Europe it is worn quite often and certainly more than on High Days and Holidays. We are losing our identity. Bit off piste maybe. Yes, conditions have improved in UK on the whole, although it disappoints me to see people sleeping rough. Same in South Africa, interestingly, black indigenous people are complaining they are losing jobs to Zimbabweans who are pouring over the Border and doing their work for less money. Its always a never ending cycle. We rob one to pay another. I haven’t studied her Blogs on a deeper level other than enjoying the stories and most certainly the photographs. I look to you for factual evidence! BTW – We still have Maypole and Morris Dancing here. 🙂

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            1. We still have some, certainly. The Morris dancing is alive and well, although the maypole dancing seems to be quite a novelty when it does happen. It was still something that went on at every fair and school when we were children, and I feel it will soon completely disappear. Things change, things evolve. I think we notice it particularly now because the pace of change has sped up considerably, almost exponentially. We have greater and larger changes now inside a year than would have occurred in the entire lifetimes of people living 500 years ago. I didn’t expect to become particularly nostalgic as I aged, but the world I now live in bears very little resemblance to that of my childhood, and I can’t say I altogether like it.

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  8. Thanks Mick for bringing this sad state in focus and spreading awareness, really sad that their employers turn a blind eye and exploit their poverty. I wish the government comes up with some interest to protect these poor people. Never thought all this before buying a pack of salt. Hope the awareness spreads.

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      1. Actually the administrative work moves at a snails pace here, things have not improved even in New Delhi since so many days and its the national capital. People are also used to take everything here and accept it. Delhi still unsafe even after years of big promises post the Nirbhaya rape case. People tend to forget too. However due to social media and digital media things are changing and coming into light at least. Pray for them to get better. will share your post in other forums.

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        1. Thanks, Subhash. Yes, I know how slowly these things tend to happen. Social media, though, can play a big part in all of this. I follow a number of pressure groups who organise very large petitions, and who do have an effect – especially in the west – on some areas of politics. Interestingly, I am about to post a new blog that touches on this.

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