With a pinch of salt!

Vedaranyam, Tamil Nadu is the second largest producer of salt in India. It employs around twenty thousand people, who work under extreme conditions sometimes even without using toilets and avoiding to drink water for a whole day.
Sonam, SBI Youth for India fellow, writes here about the conditions of the salt workers of Vedaranyam.


While the acres of saltpans that stretch out in Vedaranyam are best known for its second largest production of salt in the nation, it has been witness to the torments of laborers toiling hard under the scorching sun to produce salt which reaches our table daily.

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“I was 14 when I started working in the saltpans”, says 56 year old Shantana. “There is no work during monsoons; we have severe bleeding during menstruation; many of us have faced miscarriages. Skin, eye, bone disorders are common for us. I’ve seen women working till 8-9 months of their pregnancy and some of them work till the age of 70”.

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Shantana, Saltpan worker

Due to monsoons during September to December, the salt pan workers have no work or income. They survive during these festive days by taking loans from their saltpan owners, which is deducted from their daily wages when they resume their work. This creates almost a “bonded labor” scenario.

Saltpan work: The ground is cleared of dust and segmented into pans with small wells dug along side. The pans are filled with water from these wells and trampled upon until the bottom layer becomes firm. The briny water is then transferred from one pan to another through narrow channels. The surface is frequently scraped with heavy wooden rakes to even out the salt which is gradually captured and dried by heat, transforming the pans into hard fields of coarse salt. The crystals are broken by trampling and raked into heaps.

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Women in particular are involved in land preparation, collection of salt which makes them to stand in highly concentrated brine under the ruthless sun with micron level salt crystals in the air for a long time. Anemia, cataract, irreversible skin problems, UTI, URT and LRT disorders, TB, hypertension, disfigured bones, arthritis, gynecological disorders amongst women are more prevalent. The workers do not opt for safety gear for some financial and comfort reasons. There is a lack of toilets and resting shades to have food, in the salt pans that spread across acres of land mass. Hence workers avoid consuming food and water before they leave for work, worsening their health status.

“The saltpans are sacred to them and hence they discourage any idea related to toilets/urinals in the saltpan”, says Mr. Mariappan, traditional village president.He believes it is critical that the village members have a robust source of income from saltpan work. However, it never serves as a reliable source of income due to unavailability of work in monsoons, fluctuating wages and a deteriorating work environment.

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Mariappan, traditional village president

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Doctors suggest that the workers need to be rehydrated for them to withstand the harsh work environment. Zero-drainage urinals might help them get rid of the taboo associated with having sanitation facilities in saltpans. Dehydration being the root cause for the catastrophe of ailments, it can be combated by provision of urinals and awareness about significance of consumption of drinking water amongst the saltpan workers.

What is most disturbing is when workers address their issues as if they have accepted the wounds and pain as a part of their life. Being unaware of their language of expression, I am certain that the misery is far more intense than what I can perceive.11

A span of 11 months isn’t enough for mitigating the misery that the workers go through. Having said that, this fellowship experience so far has been an eye opener and is making me more responsible and sensitive.

Apply for the SBI Youth for India Fellowship 2017-18
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About SBI Youth For India

SBI Youth for India is a fellowship programme initiated, funded and managed by the State Bank of India in partnership with reputed NGOs. It is a movement for India's best young minds who are passionate about fuelling positive change in India. It provides a framework for India's best young minds to join hands with rural communities, empathise with their struggles and connect with their aspirations.
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