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Salt goes black, blame it on pollution

In Kutch, India’s salt hub, something stands out in the image of mounds of salt: the salt is black. Neelesh Misra reports.

india Updated: Dec 26, 2007 01:14 IST
Neelesh Misra

Mounds of salt are piled up in flat square pans across the rugged unending expanse in Kutch, India’s salt hub. But something stands out in the image: the salt is black.

A massive reconstruction programme in the arid Kutch district after the 2001 earthquake saw dozens of major industries being set up, taking advantage of tax breaks from the central and state governments. But salt in the region is turning black and salt manufacturers, and the local industry body, say it is due to rampant pollution from the new industries.

Officials say they are investigating the matter, and will try to ensure that the salt from the region, mostly used for industrial purposes, does not reach people's homes. Even so, salt manufacturers say, the polluted salt has forced serious financial losses and many small manufacturers, employing thousands of people, could have to shut down.

Gujarat is India's biggest producer of salt. It made 1.37 crore tonnes last year of the 1.8 crore tonnes produced in the 11 salt-making states.

After the post-earthquake tax breaks, “we believe investment of up to Rs. 20,000 crore came in. That also brought in polluting industries — steel plants, coke-based industries, edible oil refineries,” Parasmal Nahta, president of the Gandhidham Chamber of Commerce and Industry, told the Hindustan Times.

“There are more than 30 steel plants in Kutch district. Steel plants were supposed to have ESP units — to control smoke emission. Many did not put up these units — or put them up and did not use them,” Nahta said.

“So the salt turns black. And that carbon gets deposited inside the crystals during crystallization. It looks white on top but it has Carbon inside.”

The companies deny the allegations.“There is no such thing. There were some such plants in Kutch which were polluting earlier, but now there is none. And we have never polluted the environment, we have installed pollution control equipment,” said Kunal Babna of steelmaker Versana Ispat.

“The salt pans are not affected by us in any way,” said Hitesh Thakur of Gokul Refoils, which makes edible oils. In Jaipur, the office of the Salt Commissioner — which regulates maters related to the salt production business countrywide — said it was looking into the complaints.

“It was brought to our notice this month. I have asked for a report from our office in Ahmedabad. We are awaiting a report,” M.A. Ansari, India’s Deputy Salt Commissioner, told HT.

Out of the 50 lakh tonnes or so produced in Gandhidham, about 30 lakh tonnes is exported or sold in India for industrial use. But there are concerns over industrial-use salt being illegally sold for domestic consumption.

“This is an area of concern — that the salt does not reach the homes of citizens,” Ansari said. “There is very little chance of leakage but it is not completely ruled out — if salt goes to a tannery or any other industry, and it is sold for edible use, there is little one can do. But we are looking into it.”

In the Gandhidham area, approximately 100,000 people survive on the salt business. Salt makers say their livelihood could be at stake if they have to keepselling polluted salt at throwaway prices. But for now, many local residents say, they are losing sleep — quite literally.

“The smell of the pollutants spreads to five or six kilometres. We can't stay in our houses. After midnight, it is so hard to sleep,” said local industrialist Vidyut Buch.