Crisis in salt sector hits 5 lakh people in Gujarat

While farmers suffer due to a lack of minimum support price, workers are also in distress for want of a proper system for wages and social security

June 25, 2022 09:30 pm | Updated 10:52 pm IST - Morbi/Jamnagar

A salt farmer busy at work at the Little Rann of Kutch near Patdi, Gujarat.

A salt farmer busy at work at the Little Rann of Kutch near Patdi, Gujarat. | Photo Credit: VIJAY SONEJI

Bharat C. Raval, president of the Indian Salt Manufacturers’ Association (ISMA), started his career as a salt inspector with the Gujarat government. After spending 19 months in the government, he was attracted towards the salt cooperatives initiated by none other than Dr. Verghese Kurien, the ‘Milkman of India’.

Kurien trained Mr. Raval at the Sabarmati Salt Farmers’ Society where he joined in April 1988 as a procurement executive. Nearly 35 years later, Mr. Raval feels that the salt industry is facing huge challenges in meeting the demand and in tackling the realisation crisis faced by salt farmers.

Initially, the society where Mr. Raval worked produced 30,000 metric tonnes of salt. It reached up to 7,00,000 metric tonnes in three years, by 1991. “We have also operated CSR activities those days by providing health infrastructure support to salt farmers. Farmers were getting ₹ 17/per tonne when we entered the sector and the the price went up in the first years to ₹27 per tonne and touched up to ₹70 by 1991. That was the beauty of the cooperative development,” Mr. Raval said.

There is not much changes considering the cost of living. About five lakh people work in the salt industry directly and indirectly. At the moment, a farmer earns about ₹250 to ₹300 for a tonne of salt he or she produces. The prices keep fluctuating.

Gujarat produces about 28.5 million tonnes of salt per year, which is more than 80% of the country’s total production. While farmers are facing low price as there is no minimum support price, workers are also in distress due to a lack of proper system for wages and social security. There are about 12,800 salt processing units in Gujarat’s coastal belt, out of which only 119 are considered as medium and large.

The problem of salt industry is turning into a political issue. The manufacturers have been knocking on the doors of the government, along with the farmers.

Recently, Mr. Raval wrote a letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi on behalf of the salt manufacturers association. Salt, being the cheapest commodity, was getting the least attention from the government, he wrote, warning the Centre that if the neglect continued, India could lose its position as the world’s third largest producer of salt.

“Most of our demands are as old as the freedom movement. Mahatma Gandhi fought against the tax on salt. Even after 75 years of Independence, the laws that govern this industry are framed by the British. One hundred and twenty years ago, Britishers got salt from Mandi in Himachal Pradesh by mining. Therefore, the British put salt production as mining. Hardly 0.5% salt is produced by mining. 99.5% salt is produced either from the sea water or from the sub soil water and the entire process is done by seeding, cultivation and harvest. It is a seasonal industry and it should be considered as agriculture,” Mr. Raval said.

The production units and farmers say that all the laws pertaining to the industries are applicable to salt production even though the production is done through simple solar evaporation as it is listed as mining industry.

“As of now, demand and supply are almost same. We produce 36 million tonnes of salt and our demand, including for export, is 31.5 million tonnes. In future, if the government doesn’t take care of this industry, we will definitely be in trouble. The demand is rising at the rate of 8% and the production increase is just 3%,” Mr. Raval said.

Salt is a Central subject listed as item No. 58 of the Union List of the 7th Schedule of the Constitution. The industries demand that there should be a nodal agency with common rules and regulations. “Salt is a Central subject and land is a State subject. Salt has two parents and no one is taking care of salt. Responsibility has to be fixed on governments and manufactures. We need a new Salt Act as a common policy for entire country,” Mr. Raval demanded.

Agariya Heet Rakshak Manch is an association working among traditional salt farmers of Morbi and nearby districts. Its leader Marutisinh Bariya is very popular among the farmers for his determination to fight for them.

Mr. Bariya, himself a farmer, said on an average they get ₹250 to ₹300 for a tonne of salt. “Our input cost for labour is about ₹1 lakh in a season. Moreover, projects such as the Ran Sarovar, a project to build a fresh water lake in 5,000 square kilometres of this area, will make about 50,000 people jobless. We do not know anything other than salt making,” he said.

He added that they sell their produce to small factories, but the small factories are under pressure from the big units. “We are being pressurised to vacate our land by big salt producers. Most of us do not have proper papers, though the government allotted 10 acres for us to cultivate salt,” he said.

Harinesh Pandya, secretary of Janpath, another organisation that works among the farmers, said the traditional system of salt production was still active in the area even now.

“Historical evidences suggest that production was there for 700 years. British had established a salt company there. They sell salt to nearby companies. Day by day, salt farming is becoming viable. Four thousand pumping systems operated by solar power are functional now. It has given a fresh energy there. But to keep the farming alive, farmers must be given the access to the technology to make the final by-product of their effort. They must get crop insurance and minimum support price. Unseasonal rains and floods are also creating problems here,” he said.

M. Ramachandran, a trade union leader working among workers in salt processing units, said the workers were going through serious health issues and economic distress.

“Gujarat produces 80% of the salt in India. Now, companies have replaced cooperatives and they decide the wages of these workers and production of farmers. Most of them are migrant workers. Cooperative sector is more or less inactive. These workers do not have minimum wages or social security. Recently, 12 workers died in Morbi when a packing unit’s wall collapsed,” Mr. Ramachandran said.

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