A photo essay on life in the Gujarat salt mines

  • Mahendra Parikh, Hindustan Times, Kharaghoda, Gujarat
  • Updated: Nov 24, 2013 02:03 IST

Earlier this month, rumours of a supply shortage in Gujarat drove the price of salt to Rs 150 per kg. In the wake of the chaos that ensued, a look at how this vital commodity is produced.

Gujarat is one of the largest salt-producing states in India, which is the world’s third-largest salt-producing country.

Kharaghoda, 110 km from Ahmedabad, lies in the desert area of the arid Little Rann of Kutch. Here, the earth is so saline that salt is produced by using solar evaporation on subsoil brine. In other words, groundwater is laid out under the sun, evaporates, and leaves behind little piles of the white powder.

Kolis (indigenous coastal fisherfolk), Dalits and Muslims from nearby villages mine salt in this manner here.

Work usually begins after Navratri, when the rains are gone. Locals head to the salt fields deep within the desert, prop up small huts made of a few bamboo poles and some sacking, and get to work.

For the next eight or nine months, they will stay here with their families, digging 45 metres to 50 metres into the hard soil to reach the groundwater, then building small bunds to hold the water while it evaporates.

In these barren flatlands, there are no provisions, no sweet water and no electricity. Most settlements get one government tanker of sweet water a week. Men travel to nearby villages once every fortnight and bring back pulses, since they are non-perishable.

With no fruit, vegetables or milk, malnourishment is rife. With their skin overexposed to saline chemicals and harsh sunlight, skin diseases are rife too.

By the end of the season, 2 lakh tonnes of salt are sold to merchants in nearby towns – for 15 paise to 25 paise per kg.

Saltflat workers Nirmal Jakhvadia and his wife Manisha spend nine months here every year, living in a makeshift hut with their three children. They have no electricity and barely any sweet water. A government tanker drops off a few gallons once a week. Nirmal goes to nearby villages to buy lentils. With no means to store fruits, vegetables or milk, lentils are the staple diet. As a result, malnutrition is rife among the workers. (HT photo)

A man hacks salt off a hillock of the crystallised commodity in the ‘storage area’ of the Kharaghoda salt flats. Salt from here is sold to traders, then processed and distributed to kitchens across the country and in Nepal. (HT photo)

Salt is sifted, weighed, packaged and sorted in the ‘market area’, before being sold. (HT photo)

Entire families, children included, work the land in the scorching heat. First, they dig 45 metres to 50 metres into the hard soil until they reach the saline groundwater. They then build small bunds, enclosing large areas where the saline water is left to evaporate, leaving behind little piles of crystalline salt. With no TV or other entertainment channels, the radio is a common sight at worksites and in homes. (HT photo)

Working barefoot, with their skin overexposed to saline chemicals and harsh sunlight, skin diseases are rife among the workers here. (HT photo)

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