Production in the salt pan has come down drastically due to raw untreated sewage being let out into the south Buckingham Canal and the early closure of the sand bar at the mouth of the canal where it joins the Bay of Bengal.

“The water stinks. On calm stretches of the Buckingham Canal, you can see green-coloured patches of algae. We cannot make salt using this water,” says 68-year-old M. Thambusamy, who has been working at a salt pan in Kelambakkam for over three decades now.

Production in the salt pan has come down drastically due to raw untreated sewage being let out into the south Buckingham Canal and the early closure of the sand bar at the mouth of the canal where it joins the Bay of Bengal.

Over the last 10 years, salt production in Kelambakkam, Thiruvidanthai, Thaiyyur, and Kalavakkam — villages south of Chennai — has reduced from the minimum of 70,000 tonnes a year. Around 3,500 acres of land has been leased out by the Central (2,500 acres) and State governments (950 acres in Kadambadi near Mamallapuram) to salt manufacturers.

‘Supply salt-rich water from desal plant’

According to K. Mariappan, managing partner of SKM Subbiah Pillai and Son, whose family has been in the business for four generations now, the number of salt manufacturers has come down from 185 to just four due to these reasons. “The smaller players, including a Harijan Cooperative Society, have left due to the shortage of brine. There are 22 leases distributed among four big manufacturers. The Salt Department too stopped giving leases to small and medium salt manufacturers. If salt-enriched water, which is a reject of the desalination plant at Nemmeli is supplied to us, it would help salt trade in the area,” he says.

As the water in the canal is polluted, salt manufacturers have been forced to extract sub-soil brine from the ground. Though the density of such brine is higher than seawater, the output is not much, thereby leading to reduced salt production.

Though salt can be manufactured using seawater during the period from January to September, it stops in April due to the frequent closure of the sand bar. “If the sand bar is closed, seawater cannot enter the canal. We have written to the Public Works Department requesting it to dredge the mouth but haven’t received a response yet. Metrowater, too, has turned a deaf ear to our requests to prevent sewage inflow into the canal,” says a source in the Central government’s Salt Department. It gets an annual lease amount and a cess from salt manufacturers.

Inland fisheries hit

Inland fishermen of villages including Kovalam, Kanathur and Pudhu Kalpakkam, have been hit by the same issues. They say fish production has come down and many of them have skin ailments due to standing in polluted water.

B. Ramadas of Kovalam says that around 500 men in his village are dependant on the canal. “Sometimes we see fish floating in the water. Earlier, we caught fish such as madava, ora and oodan but not anymore. A row of pillars constructed to carry a pipeline from the desalination plant has also caused a blockage in the canal. The contractors have not removed the earth dumped during the construction.”

Another fisherman, E. Jaishankar of Vada Nemmeli, says that 25 families in his village are dependent on the canal. “We go to various spots including Kunukadu, Muttukadu and Kanathur, to catch jelly fish. Earlier, we were able to get around 800 kg a day. But now it has come down to just 200 kg. Our income, which was around Rs. 3,000 a week, is now just Rs. 1,000. The government must intervene and open the sand bar,” he says.

(With inputs from K. Lakshmi)

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