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Saga Of The Indian Salt Makers: Lack Of Welfare And Amenities

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By Raveendran Aruna:

In most developing countries, the rural labor force is growing rapidly, but employment opportunities are not keeping pace. As land available for expansion of agriculture becomes increasingly scarce, non-farm employment must expand if deepening rural poverty is to be avoided. Policy makers and analysts alike to the non-farm sector to increase rural employment contribution to economic growth improve income distribution and alleviate poverty expanding opportunities in rural areas. It is one of the primary objectives of the Five-Year Plans to ensure fuller opportunities for work and better living to all sections of the rural community and in particular to assist agricultural laborers and backward classes to come up to the level rest.

Our country with a staggering population of about 1.15 billion people has been facing the problem of unemployment. Even now about 71 percent of our population lives in rural areas and many of these people fall back upon the farm sector as the only means of subsistence. By hook or crook they are forced to live a very miserable life. The farm sector itself is full of uncertainty and it faces innumerable problems. So it will be wise not to depend absolutely on this sector alone. Together with the nourishment of this sector we have to indulge in the non-farm sector with its multifarious facets. Farm activity means agricultural activity and non-farm activity is used synonymously with non-agricultural activity.

Salt making is also the oldest non-farm activity and it provides direct employment about 1.3 lakh persons per day. But there is still a lot of ambiguity about the production of salt in India. Is it an Industry? Or is it akin to farming? Does salt production by solar evaporation amounts to mining and Salt a mineral? Salt being a Central subject, at the Central level “Salt” was once under the Ministry of Agriculture, although for a long time now it is tagged on to the Ministry of Commerce and Industry.

Under these circumstances, it is worth mentioning that the Andhra Pradesh government (2008) has declared salt as a ‘crop’ and thereby providing all such requisite subsidies (viz. free electricity, crop loan, crop insurance, etc.) to the ‘salt farmers’. Besides, this industry is the one in which about 88.85 percent of the production is in the private hands, followed by public sector 2.24 percent and co-operative sector 0.79 percent.

India is the fourth largest salt producing country in the world with an average annual production of about 180.86 lakh tonnes. The annual production of salt in India in the year 1948 was only about 66.93 lakh tonnes. During the last five decades, a strong manufacturing base in the country has been established and to make it effective, different committees such as Salt Enquiry Committee (1941), Patel Committee (1947), Salt Experts Committee (1950), Salt Advisory Committee (1948), and Salt Research Committee (1948) were constituted to study the performance of salt industry. These committees catalyzed the structural changes in the industry.

Based on these reports developmental strategies were formulated. The salt industry needs to concentrate its efforts on making itself self-sufficient in the matter of salt supply that was achieved in the year 1951. After that the production has increased only in absolute terms and it touched 180.2 lakh tonnes in 2007.

Salt sustains all life on earth —that of humans, animals, plants. Centuries ago, Roman soldiers were paid their salary in salt. And ancient Greeks used to buy slaves with salt to sustain their sybaritic lifestyle. Salt has some 14,000 uses in industry. Salt was the unlikely weapon used by Mahatma Gandhi to galvanize India’s freedom struggle. Despite this impressive history and its tremendous everyday utility, ‘common salt’ is usually taken for granted. And salt workers — those who extract this substance from the seas, lakes or the earth — are hardly the heroes of history or mythology, ballad or legend.

If anything, they are unsung beasts of burden. Not many know that salt works begin where civilization ends; that salt pans lie in coastal and desert areas under a pitiless scorching sun; hat some 1,50,000 salt workers in India and their families (perhaps half a million people in all) live for eight months a year in this harsh environment that’s often devoid of basic amenities such as drinking water, schools, hospitals or markets.

They do the toughest of manual jobs, risking blindness, blood pressure, skin lesions, knee injury, back pain exhaustion, and epidemics such as malaria; most of the salt workers children are school dropouts, and are vulnerable to chronic cough and tuberculosis. Despite such living conditions, salt workers are paid low wages, and suffer vile exploitation at the hands of the many intermediaries in the salt business, including money-lenders. Little wonder that they seek to drown their sorrows in alcohol or blow them away with smoke —further aggravating their problems.

Moreover the literature does point out that the socio-economic as well as the health conditions of the salt workers are very bad. Uday Mahurkar (2008) critically focussed on the health problems faced by the workers, and also explained how the salt workers have exploited by the traders, transporters and retailers in an inland salt industry in Gujarat. Nearly 12,000 people are engaged in salt production activities and it  produces almost 70 percent of India’s salt and inland salt from this region accounts for almost 40 percent of Inland salt sell for  Rs. 3 a kg in the markets of North America, but the Agarias get just 15 paise a kg, less than their production cost in most cases.  He also described how an Agarias hands and legs harden due to their constant work in salt, become nearly acid spray and therefore take time to burn when it is put on the funeral pyre.

Another study made by V.M.S. Perumal (2006) the working conditions of salt workers in Tamil Nadu, he explained that how the female workers are exploited by the manufactures. The male workers get bonus from Rs.1000 to Rs.2500; the bonus of the  female workers were restricted with Rs.1000 to Rs.2000 and also the workers got only Rs.100 to Rs.500 as festival allowance and they do not get any other welfare measures recommended by ILO.  Overall the condition of salt workers is very poor. Furthermore, Kripa Ram et. al (2004) analyzed the health problems among the salt workers. The study found that the prevalence of hypertension of 15.6% while it was 4.3% in those having ulcer.  Prevalence of hypertension was significantly higher in the group of brine workers with ulcers.

The labour in the salt industry is seasonal and unorganized as generally the salt manufacture is a secondary occupation to them. The salt manufacturing activities provide direct employment about 1.12 lakh persons per day. In the year 1995, 73.2 lakhs was allotted for undertaking various schemes for these benefit of the salt industry.  It increased rapidly from 73.2 lakhs in 1995 to 219.72 lakhs, in 2002 again it fell to 125.8 lakhs in 2008 as against Rs 165.29 lakhs in 2008.

Even though the Government allocates a large amount on development and labour welfare, sufficient attention is not paid to the implementation such welfare activities except for providing drinking water. It may be due to the shortage of funds. There appears a need to increase the rate of cess for running the welfare activities. There is lot of scope for raising the cess rate as can be seen from the margin between the wage paid to the workers and at the price at which salt is sold by the manufacturers. The salt is sold on an average of Rs. 300-350 per tonne out of which salt workers get paid around Rs.5/- tonne only. The Bay of Bengal Programme Inter-Governmental Organisation (BOBP-IGO study team has made a number of recommendations concerning salt workers. They are:-

  1. Create a data base on salt workers, undertake a full census and register all salt workers.
  2. Guarantee employment, fix minimum wages.
  3. Improve workplace amenities such as access to potable drinking water, mobile clinics, protective gear, sanitation and rest sheds.
  4. Strengthen awareness on family planning. Recruit health workers from the salt workers’ community.
  5. Set up a group insurance scheme. Improve and widen credit access.
  6. Set up child creches and schools. Mobilize NGOs for the purpose.

Even though the Government allocates a large amount on development and labour welfare measures the salt production seems to be witnessing a declining trend and also number of labourers working under salt cultivation is very low as compared to other industries. One possible reason that should be put forward is that the amount allotted for welfare may not reach to all salt producing states. So the Government should take suitable steps to provide the salt workers with sufficient alternative employment during off-seasons by encouraging rural and cottage industries. The administration should make sure that all the welfare measures reach the concerned people at proper time. The sooner this is done the better it is for the health of the industry and salt workers.

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  1. A M Radhika

    Well written article. Covered all points in entirety I think.

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