Salt of the earth… the salt workers of the Little Rann of Kutch
After the rains the Little Rann of Kutch can be a beautiful wetland landscape and is also a wildlife sanctuary. The Little Rann of Kutch is home to a population of rare Indian wild ass (a type of donkey) and a wealth of bird life. Yet the area is more well known for the salt industry.
The Little Rann of Kutch is a hot, dry and featureless flatland – a saline desert.
Gujarat is India’s salt-producing heartland and produces about 70% of India’s total salt production… salt is an essential food item and is an important raw material used in many salt based processes and industries.
Salt from Gujarat has great significance in India’s history as it played a crucial role in the country’s transition from British colony to independent nation in 1947. Mahatma Gandhi used the British monopoly on salt production to gather support for his call for independence and led salt workers to the coast of Gujarat to produce salt by boiling sea water. This encouraged other to do the same and civil unrest followed.
Nowadays many thousands of families toil in the desert heat using harvesting techniques that have changed little over centuries to harvest inland salt. As in other industries and trades in India women and children work in the salt industry. Whole families will migrate annually into the Little Rann of Kutch (after the monsoons between October and June) to work in the salt pans (evaporation ponds).
Working the salt in the Little Rann of Kutch is a hard life – most work bare foot, exposed to the relentless sun and the host of dangers that this occupation brings, and all for low wages.
Many of the people who work in the saline deserts of Gujarat are likely to have worked in the desert since they were children. They will dig the salt pans and wells to draw up the sub-soil brine into the salt pans. The water evaporates to leave the white salt crystals and is then harvested and taken to salt workings. The entire cycle, from well-digging to salt harvesting, can take 3 or 4 months.
Whilst on a safari to see the wild ass we stumbled upon several large square salt pans in the middle of nowhere.
A young woman and her husband were working in these salt pans which were a little way from the shack where they live. The young woman, who had nothing on her feet, was trampling the salt pan by walking up and down. This breaks up the salt to help the process of crystallization.
I’d heard about this before my trip to India – workers have to endure many health problems. They can have eye problems or go blind due to the intense reflection of the sun from the water surface or exposure to the salt can cause skin lesions. Bare feet absorb the salt and can become septic.
On a more positive note, I have read that salt workers in the better organized areas receive drinking water, education and health support – even providing eye goggles and boots.
However, I do wonder how widespread this is as life seems to remain harsh for some of the salt workers of Gujarat.
Meeting this family in the middle of nowhere and seeing first-hand how they live and work was one of those travel experiences I’ll never forget, and I do wonder what the future will bring for this young family and the little boy who was so happy to meet us…