Arduous life of salt-makers | Deccan Herald

2022-05-14 22:05:49 By : Ms. Bevis he

The barefoot walk to the salt pan, barely a stone’s throw from my host Dhanabhai Ataniya’s shack in Little Rann of Kutch (LRK), feels much longer because of the mud sticking to my feet. Dhanabhai walks easily. I enter the pan with the apprehension that my feet will be injured by the tiny salt crystals, shining in the water against the blazing sun.

I have heard stories about workers developing blisters while working barefoot here. I take a deep breath and place one foot in the clear salt water, called brine, beneath which lie huge quantities of salt crystals in different shapes.

The water is warm because of the April sun and I almost tumble into the water as the crystals started poking my sole. The host supports me with his hand and pulls me out. I wear ankle-length rubber shoes, given to me by Dhanabhai.

I again enter the pan and take a few steps, trying to feel what it takes to produce salt, the world’s most widely used seasoning. History is full of stories about salt, said to have been as precious as gold at one time. 

The 40,000 to 50,000 families — called agariyas — making salt here barely get by.

Back to the salt pan. Dhanabhai hands me the dantali or dantari, a wooden rake used for breaking salt crusts. He grips one end, and I have to manoeuvre the other. I pull this tool backwards with both hands. It is important to get into the rhythm, first by pulling the dantali towards your chest and then by walking backwards. My host compliments me as I quickly get into the rhythm but my joy is short-lived. Within a minute, my back starts to hurt. I realise the work calls for immense stamina.

“I have been doing this since my childhood,” he says. He learnt it from his father, who learnt it from his father. “We didn’t have gumboots or even slippers back then. Our soles always had blisters. Things have improved a bit over the years but still most of the work we do here is manual,” he says.

As I come out of the pan, breathing heavily, I try to imagine the work he puts in to make salt. He works eight months a year from October to May. He endures the scorching sun during the day, cold winds at night, and the dust plumes coming out of the cracked mudflats all the time. After all the hard work, he sells his produce at one to five paise a kilo, available for end users at Rs 10 to Rs 15.

After a two-hour smooth drive from Ahmedabad to Patadi, a small town in the Surendranagar district, the road becomes narrow. It is flanked by gando baval and prosopis juliflora trees. When Kharaghoda, a hamlet and the entry point of LRK, comes into view, the road turns dusty. It is a pre-colonial salt manufacturing town.

Dhanabhai, who lives in Kharaghoda when he is not in LRK, is waiting for me near the Reverse Osmosis or RO plant. This supplies drinking water to everyone in the region. Long lines of trucks are parked on either side of the road and near them are mounds of raw salt collected from the pans to be dispatched to processing plants. 

As we enter LRK, also known for its Wild Ass Sanctuary, we see trucks ferrying raw salt. On some stretches, the dust rising behind their speeding wheels reminds you of apocalyptic films like ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’. Dhanabhai tells my companion, Dayananda Meitei, who is driving, to follow the wheel marks through the mudflats. The 30 km-drive from Kharaghoda to reach Dhanabhai’s salt pans is picturesque.

After driving for nearly an hour, we reach his shack. His wife, Savita, son, Navin, daughter-in-law, Chanchi, and three grandchildren — Poonam, Neha and Rohit — greet us. For shade, we go under solar power panels, installed a few years ago. His shack can’t accommodate all of us. Beside the solar panels is a well of brine, connected to pipes and a generator.

“I do this work by choice. I have freedom to live and work as much as I want. These days, as the salt is almost ready, I work only in the wee morning hours to avoid the sun,” says Dhanabhai as his wife offers us tea in a saucer. It is sweet, with an overtone of salt. “Made with water from Rann,” Dhanabhai says, in explanation.

“This is a tough life but it is much better than working in the factories in the cities. By the end of the season, I earn enough to get by, even if we have nothing to save. This has been so since my grandfather’s time,” he says.

Dhanabhai leaves for his village in Kharaghoda by May-end. That is usually when the salt is fully collected and sold. By June, LRK is transformed from a desert to a brackish lake of seawater and also water coming in from rivers such as Banas and Rupen. During the monsoon, the region bursts into life with migratory birds and fish. By October, it is a desert again. Dhanabhai comes back to work with his wife, children and grandchildren, along with thousands of such families all across the LRK.

Every year, they build a shack out of plastic sheets and jute bags, using bamboo and wood for the structure. Jute bags counter the temperature — it can go from 0° to 50° C in summer. The family survives on a bare minimum of food grains, and cooks using an LPG cylinder and dry twigs. They keep bringing their supplies from their village.

Dhanabhai and his family represent three generations of agariyas. This season, the family is delighted as Rohit, barely 10, has carved salt pan-like structures near the shacks, showing his interest in carrying the family legacy forward. Mobile schools — schools on wheels as they are called — don’t interest him much as they are not regular and sometimes these buses are parked far from his shack.

As I roam around in the Rann, I spot a man on a motorcycle, sporting a cap, bandana and aviator glasses. He is a vegetable vendor, I learn! His name is Pravin Adgama, a resident of Kuda village, about 20 km away from the LRK, who likes trading here. “I visit about 70 to 80 houses from morning till evening and go back home. I know these people’s requirements and bring stuff accordingly. I like it better than doing odd jobs in the cities,” tells Pravin. He had brought potatoes, onions, cabbages and melons that day.

As I go deep into Rann, we spot three children waving at us. We are familiar with begging children at traffic signals, and stop gingerly, suspecting their intentions. One of them holds out a pot of water. I ask what he wants in return. “Nothing! We give this to everyone passing here,” he says. Embarrassed, I take a few sips from the steel pot. Ah! It is salty.

30-40% of India’s inland salt comes from LRK

What I did in the pan, that is, raking the salt bed, was something Dhanabhai does four to five months every year. This is just the last leg of the long process, when the salt is almost ready for harvesting.

The salt Dhanabhai produces is called inland salt. Gujarat produces 70% of the country’s total inland salt, of which, LRK’s contribution is 30% to 40%. This is a labour-intensive industry, which the agariyas handle all by themselves. 

The work begins in October when the farmers start to lay out square or rectangular pans, locally called paatas, where the salt is crystallised from brine. They dig new wells, about 9 to 10 metres deep, or revive the old ones from the last season, which ended with the onset of the monsoon. They stamp the land with their bare feet to make it hard and ensure the brine doesn’t seep into the soil. This process is known as pagali.

From these wells they pump out brine from the underground reserves and fill the paatas where natural evaporation leaves behind white crystals. After two to three weeks of supplying brine to these pans, a crust is formed which requires raking, using dantali, to prevent it from flaking. This is one of the most laborious jobs in salt making, and his entire family gets involved.

* What salt workers get for a kilo of salt: 1 to 5 paise. * What you pay at the store: Rs 10 to Rs 15.  * Time taken for the entire salt-making process: 7-8 months.

Check out DH's latest videos

Deccan Herald News now on Telegram - Click here to subscribe

Follow us on Facebook | Twitter | Dailymotion | YouTube

How Puneeth Rajkumar's voice was recreated for 'James' 

Jewellery ban could rule Hamilton out of Miami GP

Virus found in pig heart used in human transplant

Zomato CEO to fund education of delivery partners' kids

In Pics | Baghdad chokes as sandstorms sweep Iraq

'Doctor Strange 2' review: Multiversal misadventures

An endeavour to make theatre accessible to all

How Puneeth Rajkumar's voice was recreated for 'James' 

Jewellery ban could rule Hamilton out of Miami GP

Virus found in pig heart used in human transplant

Zomato CEO to fund education of delivery partners' kids

In Pics | Baghdad chokes as sandstorms sweep Iraq

'Doctor Strange 2' review: Multiversal misadventures

An endeavour to make theatre accessible to all

Bagga's arrest: Cops on their toes

what caused ev fire in india?

We use cookies to understand how you use our site and to improve user experience. This includes personalising content and advertising. By continuing to use our site, you accept our use of cookies, revised Privacy Policy.