By Mahera Dutta*
Light from the scorching sun gleamed on crystalline salt heaps stretching across saltpans in Rajapandi Nagar. The edges and walls of the many wheat colored makeshift straw huts were bleached white with salt. The onshore breeze was the only respite from the heat.
A distant chatter of the salt pans workers could be heard on entering the harvesting area of the salt pan. Men and women salt pan workers beamed with enthusiasm on a lackluster off- season day. The bright sequenced saris of the women shone in the salty marshes.
The men at Rajapandi Nagar are responsible for loading, unloading and packaging a day’s production. Men and women collectively work towards harvesting a basic and yet the most prized commodity of the country – salt.
Their work begins at 3 a.m. and is completed around one in the afternoon. This time involves drilling, blasting and cutting with shafts sunk into salty grounds after which the salt is removed crushed and packaged for use.
Uma Maheshwari, 47, is quick to lay down a mat for her visitors in her straw hut, a safe haven and a place to which she retires after a day’s long drawn work. Uma is a social worker by profession. She heads the Uzhaikumpengal Iyakkam or the Working Women’s Association. Before her marriage, she spread awareness about diseases like AIDS through street plays in her native village of Virudhunagar. The spirit of social work did not die in her when she married a salt pan worker from Tuticorin.
“I want to ensure that all the salt pan workers fight to attain their dignity and rights. For 11 long years we have been demanding an increase in wages and an adequate compensation during the off- season when salt cannot be made”, she said.
The producers of one of the most sought-after commodities have to face the harshest of conditions to make ends meet. They work barefooted under the excruciating heat causing blisters and cracks on their feet; their coarse hands often affected by fungal infections.
Direct exposure from the sunlight and its glare through salt granules causes an inevitable weakening if not loss of eyesight over time. Few toilets are in place for women to use while working on the salt pan. The women are given no less than one month to return to the salt pans in the case of delivering a child. Yet they put on their bravest self each day and endure these ordeals with a smile.
These hardships are all for a meagre sum of rupees 340 per day. Torrential rains from October to December this year wiped people of their livelihood. They had no option but to resort to money lending which lead to perpetual debt trap.
“Construction workers can fetch a sum of Rs 640 a day. I still continue to work for lesser money in the salt pans” said S Kumar, a worker responsible for packaging salt. Kumar’s work involves straining his knees while bending down for the packaging process done by electric machines which he claims malfunctions some of the times causing shocks.
The financial constraint of salt pan workers is an issue of grave concern. Esakkimuthu, an aged worker, grumbled, “Farmers and fishermen have many associations but we have far lesser cooperatives in comparison. Our demands are being brushed aside. Our struggle for Employees’ State Insurance (ESI) cards, a provident fund and pension after 60 years of age is ongoing”, he said.
“A compensation of Rs 5,000 is always promised during the off season but the promise does not move beyond the confines of manifestos of both the DMK and the AIDMK parties in the state”, complained Krishnamoorthy, a local leader and activist. The activist claimed of deliberate dilution of labour laws to snatch the few remaining rights with the workers.
Historically salt has unified the masses against the establishment. The agitations against the salt tax levied by the British in colonial India were a common thread which mobilized people against autocratic rule. In many civilizations salt symbolizes purity. The people who make salt in modern day India, however, claim they are discriminated against. “Salt pan workers do not receive the respect they deserve. The society looks down upon them”, said Krishnamoorthy. `
The salt extracted from these salt pans is exported to other South Asian countries making salt trade extremely profitable for middle men and the markets in general. But they thrive at the cost of people with stagnant wages belonging to the lowest rung of the socio-economic ladder.
Most of the children of salt pan workers are using their limited windows of opportunity to gain access to education and employment in towns nearing Tuticorin. Uma’s elder son is studying to become a lawyer in Madurai. She hopes he will bring their issues in the fore front for the media and the larger public to take note. “My other son wants to become a DJ”, Uma said with a coy smile.
“The demand for salt will never end but we do not want our children to work in this drudgery generation after generation”, she said.
*Student, Asian College of Journalism, Chennai. This article is part of a field immersion undertaken by students in rural Tamil Nadu for their exclusive 34 page broadsheet, Covering Deprivation