Every day at 5 a.m., 29-year-old Alamelu wakes up and begins her day by cooking food for her daughters and husband. Two hours later, after sending the children to school, she heads off to work at a salt pan in Marakkanam. Among the tasks she performs are dumping the salt produced from the pans in huge mounds some distance away. A few days ago, she tripped and fell and suffered a deep cut on her leg but had to continue walking through the salt as she was not allowed to rest. All she could do was pour water on the wound from a bottle she carried.
“This keeps happening here. Yesterday, another worker, Sujatha, fainted due to the heat but after a while, she too had to resume work. There is no first aid or any place to rest,” said Ms. Alamelu as she continued to carry the salt, limping.
Medical camps stopped
There are over 200 small salt units in Marakkanam, in Villupuram district, each of which employs nearly 100 workers, who work for around seven hours daily in the searing heat.
For the workers, things have gotten worse over the last year.
The Salt department’s medical camps — which are vital as many workers are diagnosed with glaucoma early in life — educational aid, as well as financial grants for meritorious students, have all been stopped. “A water tank used to be located near the pan, but it was damaged and is yet to be replaced,” said 22-year-old M. Saranraj, a former ITI student, who now helps his parents separate brine and sand at the field.
The immediate reason for the ceasing of these welfare measures is a July, 2016 notification by the Union Ministry of Finance abolishing welfare cesses that were providing a measure of social security to workers in six sectors. In the salt sector, the amount received from manufacturers on a per-tonne of salt produced basis was used for both the development of the sector, as well as welfare schemes such as water supply, provision of water coolers, storage tanks, construction of labour rest sheds, creches and toilets, housing, and supplying safety kits containing gloves, caps and goggles.
“Most workers did not have safety kits even before, but when we recently approached the authorities to help provide basic amenities and conduct medical camps, they said they do not have the requisite funds,” said A. Mohan, salt manufacturer and secretary of Adi Dravidar Salt Workers Co-operative Production and Sales Society.
Official sources at the Deputy Salt Commissioner’s office said that their revenue has declined because of the abolition of the cess, due to which they have not been able to provide the required amenities. There are 3,067 individual salt units in Tamil Nadu, of which 92 Central government land parcels have been leased out to salt manufacturers in Marakkanam.
For the year 2015-16, the State earned around ₹3 crore revenue which included ₹42 lakh of cess amount. Official sources said that due to the repeal, they have not earned any sum as cess in the current year and are operating on a deficit.
Production affected too
Manufacturers say the move, along with the increase in ground rates, as well as the fee for producing salt, has hit manufacturing. Around 114 manufacturers from Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh have reportedly filed cases in their respective High Courts on the issue.
The decline in production has also affected the livelihoods of workers, who say salaries are coming increasingly late.