Salt workers toil under inhuman conditions to create the ingredient that converts a tasteless lump of calories into consumable tasty food

Salt has played an iconic role in our freedom struggle, symbolised by the great salt satyagraha of 1930, led by Mahatma Gandhi at Dandi. Every child in India knows about this but how many know that a similar satyagraha was led in the Madras Presidency (now Tamil Nadu) by Rajaji and ‘Sardar’ Vedarathinam Pillai, terminating at a small place on the East Coast called Vedaranyam? There is still a memorial at the spot, where local people regularly come to pay their respects to the martyrs of that struggle. Today, in this area, the heart of salt-making in Tamil Nadu, an estimated 10,000 men and women are employed in salt production. They toil under inhuman conditions to create the ingredient that converts a tasteless lump of calories into consumable tasty food.

The role of gender

Gender plays an important role in this suffering, too. For instance, when there is complete lack of any shelter in the salt pans where workers can rest, lie down or just eat their food, it hardly needs to be mentioned that there are no covered toilets for women, not even in thatched huts. This forces the women workers to go without relieving themselves for eight to nine hours at a stretch, leading to diseases of the urinary tract and kidneys over a period of time. Fortunately for the men, they are free to relieve themselves when and where they please.

Further, women work a single eight-hour shift. They leave home at an unearthly hour — 2.00 a.m. — and walk through tracks with no lighting. This becomes a big obstacle in their taking care of children below six years and helping children above six in getting ready for school, cooking for them, etc. Providing round-the-clock crèches for all children under six, a must in such a situation, has not even been heard of, leave alone established.

Two large companies of national stature control over 60 per cent of salt production in the country, while the rest is handled by a few hundred small producers, of whom about 650 have formed an association. How then can some relief from suffering, as well as improvements in productivity and life span through health facilities and labour welfare measures — toilets, crèches, low-cost protective gear etc. — be brought to these workers? There are some active unions among them, but they are weak and have little bargaining power with the larger employers. The smaller unions, even with some contributions, may need external financial support. Can innovative measures like an ESI hospital for all certified employees (from either the private or public sector), including an Occupational Therapy Wing, be a part of the answer? The time has come to work seriously at developing such solutions.

A model public sector enterprise

A ray of hope is the news that ‘Amma Salt’ of three varieties is to be produced by the Tamil Nadu Salt Corporation. This will no doubt operate as a model public sector enterprise that will not only work out solutions, but will implement them in reality, and also act as a beacon of hope to all salt workers, salt manufacturers and others associated with the trade. There is no doubt that ‘Amma Salt’ will be produced from the beginning using working procedures and guidelines which care for the health, quality of life and productivity of the labour force, particularly women.

Gandhiji and his companions tried to emphasise through the salt satyagraha that sea water is a social resource, and salt a public good contributed by the sea, which itself constitutes 97 per cent or our global water resources. While converting the common pool of resources into a commercial product, a non-negotiable ethos of the salt enterprise must be the health and welfare of those human beings who turn sea water into life-giving salt. Above all, it is you and I — the public — who consume salt with every meal, who must become conscious of this issue and do our bit to see that those who toil to provide us with this daily necessity do not suffer.

The ‘Amma Salt’ initiative has drawn attention to providing clean salt to consumers at affordable prices, while also providing greater health and childcare facilities and working conditions to women and men involved in the production of salt.

(Mina Swaminathan is distinguished professor in gender at M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation.)

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