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Review: As dear as salt

books Updated: Jul 22, 2013 13:22 IST

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Book: As dear as salt
Author: Reyna Sequeira
Publisher: Goa, 1556
Price: Rs. 400

Salt has been an important produce of the coastal region of Goa on the west coast of India for centuries and has been exported from there to countries in Africa and the rest of Asia. But today, the traditional salt sector lies decimated and threatened by extinction, says a new book on the subject.

"Goa once was a hub of salt making. Salt was the currency that allowed Goans to import essential commodities. Today, the very same occupation lies derelict, its spine truly broken by a century and more of official polices, governmental apathy, low social status...," says the book "As Dear As Salt" authored by sociologist Reyna Sequeira.

Sequeira, who did her PhD from Goa University on the salt-making communities of Goa and is an associate professor, says in the book that traditional occupations must be remembered "not as a tapestry in a museum merely to be viewed, but as a living part of our society".

Her field work, spread over a couple of decades involving both her masters and doctorate on this often ignored subject, looks at salt makers in three villagers scattered across diverse pockets of coastal Goa - Agarvaddo (Pernem), Batim (Tisvadi) and Arpora (Bardez).

Besides focussing on the salt making communities, she highlights the "geography, history and politics" of salt in Goa. In the first two, one gets a hint of how the area of salt extraction has shrunk, particularly over recent decades and also since the late 19th century and the Anglo-Portuguese Treaty.

In the "politics" of this section, Sequeira touches issues of the salt sector's legal status. She quotes researchers like Dr Harishchandra T Nagvenkar who say that steps taken to promote salt production, marketing and competitiveness could have made a huge difference to this sector in Goa.

Salt has figured only rarely in the Goa legislative assembly, though a few politicians have realised its importance. Sequeira gives a detailed description of the salt making process in Goa. While it may seem to involve a simple process, it has carefully evolved over the centuries as detailed drawings and photographs from the field suggest.

Given her sociologist's approach, Sequeira studies the salt-makers themselves in detail - both from the Hindu and Catholic communities, and even migrants from neighbouring coastal Karnataka. She describes and contrasts their festivals, language, religion, marriage and other practices followed along different parts of the Goa coast.

The changing status of women - a reality in today's Goa -- also throws up interesting issues. Family involvement in salt work, and social problems, are also covered, as is the economic life of the villages studied.

Sequeira notes age-old unsolved problems in transportation that the salt makers face. Likewise competition, sometimes unfair, from the corporate world also comes up in the 256-page hard-bound book.

In Batim, a village just off the Panaji-Margao highway, local salt farmers coexist with migrants. From here, a number of traditional marriage rituals are documented by the author. Interesting syncretic practices - which cut across the religious divide - are also studied.

Landlords, workers, tenants and migrants feature in the crucial task of creating salt.

In Arpora village, close to the North Goa beach belt, says the author, the salt pans have come under immense pressure due to factors like tourism and the real-estate boom in the locality. At the time of commencement of her research, there were four operational salt pans in the village, but now just one exists.

Storage of salt and the hurdles to salt making are also studied in the book. Sequeira approached a number of authorities under the Right to Information Act - from village panchayat upwards - whose answers suggest a poor understanding or serious lack of interest in salt making.

Goa needs a deputy salt commissioner appointed for itself, and statistics on salt production should be systematically maintained, says Sequeira. She also suggests a strict ban on the conversion of salt pans.

Other suggestions deal with building awareness over the importance of salt pans, badly-needed official support for infrastructure, linking up Goa's "isolated salt sector" with the national-level infrastructure, upgrading skills and knowledge, training, special schemes for Goa's salt sector, marketing support, promoting cooperatives, minimum support prices for salt, de-silting, reclaiming non-functional salt pans, repairing sluice gates, providing roads for transportation, and vocational training in salt making skills.

Responding via cyberspace to an announcement of the book, Patrice Reimens, a Netherlands-based cyber-campaigner who has long followed issues in Goa, commented: "In France, traditional salt makers in Bretagne and Camargue have managed to survive by 'branding' their produce into a high class, hyped-up 'must have' - and pricey. Maybe some forces in Goa could push in that direction. Of course, this would need some serious investments and savvy marketing..."

"Salt has played an important role across human history. No substance other than water has been used with such regularity as salt," the book notes. Yet, in our times, it lies devalued and neglected.