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Sweating salt Working 10 hours a day at the salt pans, workers are prone to skin diseases and illnesses
Sweating salt Working 10 hours a day at the salt pans, workers are prone to skin diseases and illnesses

ON FEBRUARY 4, 2009, villagers from Ulana, Gudha, and Bavli, in Rajasthan’s Nagaur district blocked earthmovers from entering their villages in a protest against the encroachment of village common lands. The state machinery was quickly mobilised, with the local police threatening the locals with dire consequences. However, the villagers remained resolute in the face of threats. Realising that they were beaten, the contractors backed off. Such incidents do not generate headlines but this incident marked the first collective struggle against the salt mafia of Sambhar Lake.

Located 60km south west of Jaipur city, Sambhar Salt Lake’s 5,700-squarekilometer catchment area spreads across the districts of Nagaur, Jaipur, Ajmer and Sikar. India’s largest saline lake, it has a record of salt production that goes back 1,500 years. The control of salt production passed from local communities to the Rajputs, the Mughals, the British and finally to Sambhar Salts Limited, a joint venture between Hindustan Salts Limited and the Government of Rajasthan, which regulates salt production. While mainstream India chooses to believe that Gandhi’s Dandi March on March 12, 1930 ended all exploitation related to salt production, for the 90-odd villages of the catchment area of the lake, desh ka namak has a very bitter taste.

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CRYSTAL CLEAR

Sambhar produces 2,10,000 tonnes of salt each year

It is India’s largest inland saline lake with a catchment area of 5,700 sq km

With 400 illegal salt pans, over-extraction has lowered groundwater levels by 40 feet

1 kg is produced for 40 paise and sells at Rs 10 MRP: the profits lure mushrooming businesses

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Sambhar Lake produces 2,10,000 tonnes of salt each year, placing Rajasthan among the top three salt-producing states of India. It was declared a wetland of international importance in 1990 by the Ramsar Secretariat for being a unique migratory bird habitat and wetland ecosystem. The daily life of the villagers living in the lake’s catchment area is hardly glamorous, however. Here, salt is a harsh reality that harms as it sustains, giving employment, disease and, ultimately, death to those who work the salt pans.

It is a story of simple economics, splashed with greed and sprinkled with a fair bit of corruption. It costs 40 paise to produce 1 kg of salt. That kilogram is retailed for Rs 10. This high profit margin has led to the mushrooming of unauthorised salt pans and processing centres in and around the lake. Accommodative administration, politicians, and police prefer not to stand in the way of economic growth, especially when their incomes are set to grow as well. “The nexus is strong and the money chain goes a long way,” said a retired official. “We know what is happening but are helpless. Nobody wants to land in trouble”.

Wrinkled with dry skin and thick rashes, Sambhar’s salt workers rarely look their age

While officals profit, not everyone is that lucky. Labourers work barefoot on the salt pans for nine to ten hours without any protective gear, causing their faces to wrinkle and become dessicated and their feet to develop thick rashes. They rarely look their age and they have a life expectancy of 45 years. With no employment benefits or legal protection, salt pan workers live at the mercy of an exploitative regime. The men are paid Rs 125 a day and the women Rs 100, with labourers often going unpaid for weeks. Compared to the owners who are usually from Haryana and Delhi, and the labour and vehicle contractors who are from Barmer and Jodhpur, the locals hardly get any benefits.

A ghostly white NASA’s map of Sambhar shows the saltpans of the lake eating into the villages
A ghostly white NASA’s map of Sambhar shows the saltpans of the lake eating into the villages

The process of extracting salt from Sambhar lake has undergone a serious transformation. The traditional process is monsoon dependent. Sambhar Lake taps water from four seasonal rivers, the Mendha, the Rupangarh, the Kharian and the Khandel and numerous streams and rivulets. This water reacts with lake sediments and becomes brine, which evaporates over 50 days, leaving behind crystallised salt. However, today most salt production units use deep borewells to extract groundwater, reducing the entire process to 15 days. Between 15 to 20 borewells operate in every bigha (0.6 acres) of land. Excess water pumping has lowered groundwater levels by almost 40 feet in the area. Deprived of recharge from subsurface flows, the lake is continuously shrinking and seasonal streams and rivers are now vanishing. In addition, the impact of the practice of using pumped water to make salt now extends beyond the periphery of the lake. Salt production units now hire tankers which plunder groundwater from areas further away. With no legislation in place to prevent unsustainable groundwater extraction, regulatory authorities remain paper tigers. Most villages on the eastern side of the lake now face an acute shortage of drinking water, causing people to migrate.

SATELLITE IMAGERY shows innumerable evaporation ponds or kyaries (salt pans) dotting the lakebed and the buffer region. Officially, there are only 400. Research shows that 74 percent of illegal salt pans are located within one kilometer of the lake’s core. Since there is little space left to capture within the lake, the neighbouring villages are having their land grabbed. Large swathes of village commons and grazing lands are being illegally transferred on 10 to 20 year leases at the throwaway price of Rs 20,000 per bigha. These transactions deftly bypass any requirement for approval at the Gram Sabha or Gram Panchayat level. The villagers of Ulana, Gudha and Bavli saw vast tracts of common land being converted into salt pans in neighbouring areas. This only hardened their resolve to stand up to corruption and brute force. Ramlal Gujjar (name changed on request) from Bavli blames the money thrown around by salt contractors for subverting collective decision-making in the village. However, in time villagers have realised that they have lost more than what they have gained. “Gaon ka zameen, pani aur izzat sab kuch loot liya (They have looted the village of its land, its water and its honour).” The Cabinet Minister for Labour and Employment, Master Bhanwar Lal refused to comment on the issue, saying “I cannot say anything now. The Election Commission code of conduct is quite strict this year. Let the elections get over and I will discuss this further and look into it.”

Tankers plunder groundwater from far away areas, depleting water levels by 40 feet

Sambhar Lake is dying. Though it is supposed to occupy an impressive 230 square kilometers, the lake hasn’t had any water for the last seven to eight years. It now only has water for about seven square kilometers, most of it ankle-deep. The destruction of their habitat has kept migratory birds away for a decade. And yet, not even a whimper of protest has been heard from India’s wetland experts. People around Sambhar Lake are slowly realising that collective action is the only thing that will make a difference. What seemed to be just a flash in the salt pan might actually be spreading across the landscape.

Acharya is a development analyst based in Bengaluru

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