In Adivasi Colony, a remote hamlet off the road from Vedaranyam to Kodikarai in Tamil Nadu, most of the adults in the 200-odd households work in salt manufacturing. They prepare salt pans manually, irrigate them with saline water which is three times saltier than seawater, and rake salt out of the pans, packing it into plastic packets once it has dried. Some work in the numerous salt factories in the area. Others are fishermen and a few have given up salt pan work to work as casual labourers for MGNREGA. Work in the salt pans involves hard physical labour; most workers are employed as casual labour on contract basis and are therefore not covered by health insurance or other safety schemes.
Underpaid & ailments
Most salt pan workers earn Rs.50-Rs.100 a day, far below the minimum wage and that too after a hard day toiling under the harsh sun. They suffer from the ailments usually associated with poverty — malnutrition, anaemia, Vitamin B, A and D deficiencies, manifested by aches and pains, poor night vision and accelerated ageing. In addition, several occupational hazards have been documented in salt workers — the most common being chronic dermatitis (skin ulcers) caused by constant exposure to sharp salt crystals, especially on their hands and legs. Exposure to bright, white, reflected light and dust leads to premature loss of vision and growths in the cornea of the eyes called pterygia. They are also at higher risk for hypertension (high blood pressure), presumably because of the higher salt content in their blood from inhalation of salt aerosols – salt factory workers being most at risk. Almost all the workers we spoke to complained of body pain, especially in the back and shoulder region, which they attributed to hauling salt all day. We also saw a number of young women and girls with goitre — a swelling of the thyroid caused by iodine deficiency. Because the salt they panned was packed and shipped right away without iodisation, most people in the area consume non-iodised salt. Iodine deficiency is known to lead to poor thyroid function — if it happens during pregnancy, it can lead to congenital hypothyroidism with mental retardation.
A visit to the salt pans makes one wonder how anybody could work in these harsh, almost inhuman conditions. While a few salt pans had thatched shelters nearby, most did not. I did not see any toilets and the fact that the landscape was flat with no bushes or trees in sight for miles, made me wonder if the reason these women did not eat or drink anything was to avoid nature’s call. In fact, several women said that they could not eat a meal because of the lack of any shelter around the pans.
India is one of the major producers of salt accounting for eight per cent of the world’s salt production. Salt is produced by solar evaporation of sea/subsoil/ inland brines. The salt industry provides employment to more than 1.5 lakh workers. Gujarat, Tamil Nadu, Rajasthan, and Andhra Pradesh are the leading salt producing States of the country. Vedaranyam (in Nagapattinam district of Tamil Nadu) is home to about 10,000 salt worker families and is the place where C. Rajagopalachari and Sardar Vedaratnam Pillai undertook a salt march in April 1930, as part of the Satyagraha movement. It is ironic that while salt became a symbol of India’s struggle for independence, salt workers continue to live in penury and bondage well into the 21st century. There are various hazards that endanger the worker’s health and well-being in the salt industry: sharp-edged crystals in the salt farm, contact with machine parts and electrical shocks in the factories, air pollution (high salt in the air leading to high BP), light (both excessive light as well as poor light), heat, manual carrying of load, contact with fire during sealing of packets, and poor living conditions. Surprisingly, there has been no systematic and comprehensive study of the occupational health hazards of salt workers in India.
Salt units are expected to comply with a number of different standards and statutes laid down in the Factories Act; however, the existing safety prevention and management practices need improvement and better monitoring of implementation. Where exposure to hazards cannot be avoided, workers need to use personal protection equipment. Equipment required in the salt industry include safety helmets, eye goggles, hand gloves, safety shoes, disposable filter mask, breathing equipment, body clothing and waist support belts. It has been documented that these are rarely used — there are a number of reasons for this, including workers not perceiving the need or not being comfortable with the models currently supplied, and employers not providing the gadgets. For example, one woman told us that the heat inside the boots was unbearable and that if salt crystals got in, it caused more injury to the skin. The National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad has designed user-friendly boots, gloves and goggles for Rs.500 a set, being used in Gujarat already. Other States could also implement the use of these protective equipments, which would prevent many of the occupationally related health hazards. Workers should be educated regarding the necessity of using personal protection equipment, its proper usage, upkeep and maintenance.
There is a need for medical health surveillance by the salt manufacturing units. A medical check must be carried out at the time of induction of workers and at regular intervals after that. A health insurance package would go a long way in improving the health status of this population.
The present living conditions of the workers in the salt pan and salt industry also require drastic improvement. Availability of basic amenities like sanitation, drinking water, proper housing, etc. should be ensured. Provision of smokeless chulhas (safer stoves) will help ameliorate the problem of indoor air pollution. Attention must also be paid to the nutritional status of the workers and their families — a suggestion is that they be provided with one nutritious meal/snack a day (e.g. ragi kanji ) during their working hours. Since salt workers leave home around 2 a.m., their children are not properly attended to and many of them do not go to school regularly. Special educational programmes are needed to solve this issue and reduce school dropouts. Further, the income of the salt workers is seasonal; policy initiatives are needed to provide saving-cum-relief as in the case of fisherfolk, who are provided with monetary compensation during the monsoon season. Finally, (and most importantly) they must be given access to iodised salt at subsidised rates. That the people who provide the rest of the country with something as basic as salt do not receive iodised salt themselves is an injustice that must be rectified.
(Dr. Soumya Swaminathan is director, National Institute for Research in Tuberculosis, Chennai.)