The Lives of the Salt Harvesters of Thoothukudi in a Warming World

As manufacturers struggle to come to terms with the uncertainties brought on by shifty weather and a bleaker future, the labourers find themselves the most vulnerable link.

A salt pan in Thoothukudi. Credit: Kamala Thiagarajan

A salt pan in Thoothukudi. Credit: Kamala Thiagarajan

Kamala Thiagarajan is a writer and journalist based in Madurai, Tamil Nadu.

Thoothukudi: S. Bose*, 45, is dressed in khaki shorts and a T-shirt but the most arresting part of his attire is a pair of thick dark socks. Under the blazing heat of the midday sun, surrounded by mounds of blindingly white crystals as far as the eye can see, his black stockings make for a vivid contrast to the landscape around him. At first glance, it appears as if we’re in the middle of a frozen wasteland… but the heat snaps us out of this reverie quickly enough. A wild wind tugs at our hair and whips our clothes. I am standing on the edge of a salt pan in Thoothukudi. My shoes are sinking into layer after layer of crusty white salt.

Situated along the Coromandel coast, Thoothukudi is a major port city in Tamil Nadu and home to much of the state’s salt harvesting terrain. This industry is over a century old in these parts.

In 2011, India ranked third in salt production worldwide, after China and the US. In the years since Independence, the salt industry has grown substantially. From 1.9 million tonnes in 1947, India produced 22.18 million tonnes of salt in 2011-12. Tamil Nadu accounts for 30% of this, second only to Gujarat. And much of the state’s salt production comes from Thoothukudi.

Bose has worked in Thoothukudi’s salt pans since the age of 10. It’s not long before it becomes evident why he needs socks in this weather. “I have an open sore on my legs,” he says. “Standing in salt is hard when you’re injured. It stings and burns. When wounds are flooded with brine all day, they never have a chance to heal.”

Harvesting salt

Credit: Kamala Thiagarajan

Credit: Kamala Thiagarajan

Sounds of scraping and grinding pierce through the quiet all around us as a team of salt-pan workers, knee-deep in salt, use shovels to scoop the crystals into shiny aluminium buckets and pans. They carry these over their heads, walk a few feet and toss the chunks into a small lorry. They have been doing this since 6 am and will stop work at 3 pm. “Each person carries up to 80 loads of salt each shift,” Bose says. “Each load weighs around 25 kg. We transport and store an average of 50 tonnes of salt a day. If even one worker were to slack off and not contribute their share, it would affect the team’s productivity and daily wages.” Since this is a labour intensive job, each of them is paid Rs 500 a day, almost twice as much as the other salt pan workers are.

After the lorry is filled, Bose drives it further into the property, where the salt is piled into a tightly packed dune ten feet wide and thirty feet tall. This arrangement makes storing the crystals easier, protecting the inner layers from being washed away when it rains. In some cases, tarpaulin and plastic covers are also thrown over the dunes – although nothing can protect it against a deluge, of course.

A colourful bandana is wound around T.S. Raja’s head, like a turban. He’s the only worker here sporting shades. The wind is strong and persistent while waves of heat radiate from the arid pans. In slow, sweeping movements, he draws his bamboo stick across the still waters, gathering crystals of salt that materialise on the sides of the pans.

“Solar salt is produced by harnessing the forces of nature,” says M.P. Dileep, the director of the Thoothukudi Salt & Marine Chemicals Ltd., a manufacturer of salt for industrial purposes. “During the harvesting process, salt water is brought in, either from the sea or from borewells that draw from groundwater (sub-soil brine) and are stored in reservoirs. The salt pans – which are shallow pools with elevated mud borders – are dug by hand every year from January to March. This is the most labour-intensive part of the process.”

Once the pans are ready to use by April, workers feed brine into it from storage tanks, channeled through pipes to keep the liquid from evaporating. First, “the brine is pumped into salterns.” Salterns refers to the area in which salt is made, a series of shallow pools that tend to extend over several acres. They consist of evaporating ponds and crystalliser ponds. “It is  pumped from one evaporation pond to another and finally into the crystalliser ponds, where pure sodium chloride precipitates. During this process, the density of the brine is monitored carefully to establish the right salinity and purity of salt. Dry winds and sunlight help to harvest the crystals faster,” says Dileep. The dry winds before the monsoon are found to be more effective for the formation of salt crystals because it increases the rate of evaporation. Once the moist winds that precede the northeast monsoons set in in October, salt production stops.

“Sea salt contains other chemical ingredients and it is very difficult to produce relatively pure sodium chloride from seawater, which is why sub-soil brine is used,” says N. Ratnavel, a member of the Indian Salt Manufacturers’ Association.

If nature aids the process, it can play havoc, too. Since 2015, unseasonal rains that preceded the monsoons flooded the salt pans and badly affected production in these parts. In such a situation, sea water can overflow into the pans too, destroying it’s carefully controlled salinity.  “It rained non-stop during our prime salt harvesting months, from March to May,” Dileep says. “Many salt-processing factories in the area had to import raw salt from Gujarat.”

According to 2016 data, Thoothukudi was one of two districts in the country that recorded a 75% rainfall deficiency during the actual monsoons that year. On the flipside, there were abundant pre- and post-monsoon showers – 49.5 inches and 158.9 inches respectively, compared to 18.6 inches during the monsoons.

“This year, we’re having the opposite problem – there’s too little rain,” Dileep complains. Prolonged drought conditions – lasting several months to many years – could affect the nature of the salt pans, causing the clayey soil along which they are built to dry and crack. This would make it increasingly difficult to build the salterns every year and it would eventually affect the quality and quantity of salt. Ideally, salt should be 90-95% pure sodium chloride, 1% calcium salts, 1-2% magnesium salts and 5-8% water. “At higher temperatures, the rate of evaporation will be higher. So the salt that crystallises will have a greater concentration of calcium and magnesium impurities,” according to Ratnavel.

As manufacturers struggle to come to terms with the uncertainties brought on by shifty weather and a bleaker future, the labourers find themselves the most vulnerable link.

Life as a salt worker

Meenakshi (left) and Mariamma (right). Credit: Kamala Thiagarajan

Meenakshi (left) and Mariamma (right). Credit: Kamala Thiagarajan

Meenakshi, 58, and Mariamma, 45, have been working in the salt pans in varying capacities for 15 years. Their responsibilities involve releasing the borewell brine into the pans and to reinforce the mud borders of the salt pans when required. It involves staying alert and monitoring  the density of the brine throughout the day. Their lives have always revolved around the temporary nature of these jobs. Which is why, during the unseasonal rains last year, they found themselves out of employment, bewildered and confused. Usually, this is the time of year when salt harvesting is at its peak.

When the work stopped, they found that no one else was willing to hire them. “I would have starved if it weren’t for the rice I received through my ration card,” says Meenakshi. “No one would employ us because they knew we laboured in the salt fields and they were afraid of being left in the lurch once the rains stopped.” Mariamma adds, “The rains didn’t stop for several months. It was worrying. We couldn’t understand it and didn’t know what would become of us.”

Salt-pan labourers tend to endure a great many hardships, the least of which is the migratory nature of their job.  “Even a full season of work in the salt pans will keep them engaged only for six months in a year,” says Senthil Babu, an activist who works along the coast near Chennai and a member of the Coastal People’s Rights Movement (CPRM). “Often, many salt pan workers tend to be agriculturalists, but the unviable nature of agriculture now is affecting many of them. Once the salt harvesting season is over, their job security is questionable.”

While at work in the salt pans, health complaints such as dehydration and dizziness are rampant. “The thirst can get unbearable,” says Munnisamy, 58. “It never leaves you.”

He frequently fetches drinking water from a well nearby in two plastic containers and ensures workers can get some water whenever they want. In many other salt pans across Thoothukudi, the situation is often worse. Many can stop to drink water only during the two breaks in their seven-hour shifts. Since they spend long hours under the sun, this can be very damaging to their health.

The two main occupational hazards that salt pan workers are prone to are kidney disease and retinal issues. “Chronic kidney disease (that is unrelated to hypertension or diabetes, the conditions that usually cause it) affects 15-18 out of every hundred workers in coastal hamlets,” according to Dr Pramod B.R., a urologist and kidney transplant surgeon at the Apollo Speciality Hospital, Bengaluru. “In 4% [of patients], it can be fatal. Exposure to intense heat and severe, prolonged dehydration are the probable causes. These workers have very few breaks in their day and their drinking water is often contaminated. To make things worse, the condition is often asymptomatic, so there is no means of catching the disease earlier. Regular screening of salt industry workers should be done.”

Credit: Kamala Thiagarajan

Credit: Kamala Thiagarajan

Moreover, he added, workers who are often the sole bread winners in their family have to spend a lot of time and money travelling for dialysis (each session can cost between Rs 12,000 and Rs 18,000).

Babu works with salt pan laborers in the Marrakanam area, which is spread over 2,500 acres of coastal land in Villupuram district.

“We advise them to tie a bottle of water around their waist as they work, but few do this,” he says. Many don’t take it seriously and are negligent. Others find it cumbersome to work this way.

He recently invited the community health wing of the Puducherry Institute of Medical Sciences (PIMS) to treat the workers. During a preliminary medical examination of workers from four villages in the area, five people under the age of 40 were diagnosed with renal failure. All of them had worked in the salt pans for most of their lives. “The CPRM is trying to mobilise a larger health camp where we can screen at least 4,000 workers for kidney-related disorders in the months ahead,” Babu hopes.

Eye-related disorders are also a concern. “Constant exposure to UV rays can affect the lens in the eye and accelerate the rate at which they develop cataract,” says Dr Rishi Swarup, medical director and chief of cornea services at the Swarup Eye Centre, Hyderabad. “Early cataract is definitely a possibility. This is especially concerning because a great deal of sunlight is reflected from the surface of the salt. A significant amount of UV radiation can easily enter the eye at that angle. This makes salt workers far more vulnerable to eye disorders when compared to others who spend an equally long time under the Sun. They’re also at risk to pterygium, a disease that affects the cornea and can disrupt vision.”

At least these diseases are easily operable. However, unprotected UV exposure can irreparably damage the optic nerve. “Prolonged exposure can damage the retina and cause loss of vision. It’s irreversible – there’s no cure,” says Dr Swarup. Since eye damage and constant irritation from flying salt dust is also a possibility, protective sunglasses should wrap around to shield the sides of the face, minimising injury to the corners of the eyes as well. “At the very least, sunglasses with adequate UV filtering are a must for workers in this industry. Today, you can get a pair at Rs 300. For the sake of their wellbeing, employers must consider providing these.”

They don’t. Salt pan workers are migratory labour. They rarely work in the same place year after year, so employers don’t feel obligated to do anything long-term for them – although the employers would never admit to this. Dileep had mentioned that they “had the best of both worlds” since they could go back to their own agricultural lands and work there for the rest of the year. Questions to Ratnavel on this front were not answered.

Endemic pollution

Polluted water near where the salt pans are. Credit: Kamala Thiagarajan

Polluted water near where the salt pans are. Credit: Kamala Thiagarajan

Both intense heat and untimely rain can be devastating. When the days are very hot and there’s little rainfall – as seen in the weather conditions prevailing at the moment – with forecasts in the latter half of August and in early September 2017 expected to soar at an unusually high 36-39º C – there might not be enough groundwater to feed salt pans. This can have long-term impact on the salt pans,  affecting the porous nature of the soil that they’re built on that is critical to salt-making. Unseasonable and heavy rains, like the kind that ravaged many parts of Tamil Nadu in December 2015, aren’t good news either, as it means mounting losses for manufacturers and wasted effort and loss of pay for labourers.

Third, a construction boom in Thoothukudi has been taking over lands in the city traditionally used for salt-making for over a century. “Many salt pans are being converted into warehouses, storage yards and buildings,” says Dileep. “Once you construct over this land, it is an irreversible process. You can never harvest salt in it again. The lands here should not be disturbed.”

As salt pans diminish and land is scarce,  agricultural land is in danger of being employed to cultivate salt. This is also an irreversible process and can threaten the soil’s fertility, making for another issue in desperate need of redressal.

“Large-scale salt harvesting and the arable land that they are choosing to convert into salt pans can create vast areas of brackish water,” Divya Karnad, a marine biologist in Chennai and a member of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, told The Wire. “This can have a spillover effect, with salt leaching into the underground water and making it unusable for both the salt pans and the local people who reside here. Unseasonal rainfall can have devastating consequences for the salt-pan landscape by speeding up the leaching and desertification process for the surrounding areas.

Most of the workers live in small shanties a few hundred metres from the salt pans and will be the most affected by groundwater contamination. This is cause for alarm because that’s their sole source of drinking water. “This is an issue that requires immediate attention,” according to Karnad.

Another difficulty that the industry is expecting to grapple with over the next few decades is the lack of skilled labour, especially involving the next generation of salt workers. Even as manufacturers are painfully aware that labour is growing scarce, many salt workers take comfort in the fact that despite their difficulties, they’re managing to educate their children. Bose is proud that he’s put his two boys and a girl through college. “My youngest is completing her bachelor of commerce,” he says. “I’m happy that they will have jobs outside of the salt industry. This backbreaking labour and constant toil – it all ends with us.”

*The salt pan workers interviewed for this article wished to be known on a single-name basis only.