Salt Make City

Salt Make City:Vedaranyams salt pans in Tamil Nadu

Prathap Nair tells us the story of salt from the salt pans of Tamil Nadu to your table.

It is August and while the rest of the country is reeling under the aftereffects of rain showers ushered in by the south west monsoon, Tamil Nadu, in the rain shadow region, is at its sunny best. The small town of Vedaranyam, running along the Bay of Bengal, is no exception. And in a way, Vedaranyams economy depends on its rainlessness. The lesser it rains, the more salt can be produced in its salt pans that extend for acres in the Vedarnyam Kodiyakarai stretch. Salt production is the main source of income for many in this region and Vedaranyam contributes significantly to Indias position as the third largest salt manufacturer in the world. Many companies have manufacturing units in the region and they procure salt in bulk quantities from the farmers for further purification and packaging. Thoothukudi is the major salt producer in Tamil Nadu with Vedaranyam following close on its heels. Salt manufactured here is exported to a vast number of countries ranging from Qatar in the Middle East to Malaysia, Indonesia, Philippines and Vietnam in the Far East. Countries like China, Japan and Nepal also figure high in the export market. Salt is produced in as much as 9000 acres of land amounting to an estimated 3.5 million tonnes.

Sunny days like this are essential for salt production. This year, when Tamil Nadu received unseasonal rains in the months of January, February and March, farmers here were forced to delay salt production because the rains flood the salt water pans. Flooding of sea water is also an issue. People like Gopal and this elderly laborer are part of the ecosystem that drives salt production in Vedaranyam. They periodically check the pans and sweep up the salt after the water crystallizes into salt. The salt is then dried up in mounds before being filled up in sacks and carted away. When the water is pumped into a collection pit, it will be around 100C, Gopal on how salt is extracted. The pumped up water is then run into square pans and is left to dry where it reaches 300C.

It turns into salt in just about 3 hours on a sunny day,he adds. Sunny days are common here and Gopal and his companions work in the pans braving the sweltering heat that can often induce headaches. The swept up salt, still dripping wet, is gathered in mounds and left for days to dehydrate. To prevent the mounds from getting washed in an unlikely event of a rainfall, thatched palm leaves are spread forming a protective layer. The salt, thus stored, is inspected for its consistency after about 10 days and is prepared for loading. Companies like Chemplast Sanmar operate huge salt manufacturing units in the Vedaranyam region. Many of them procure salt from the salt pans and scenes like this where salt is packed in gunny sacks and loaded onto trucks for purification and packaging in the industrial plants before it is ready for consumption are common.

The vast majority of salt pans are located in the road leading to Kodiyakarai. The nose shaped Vedaranyam swamp is situated parallel to the Palk Strait the waterway that connects Tamil Nadu with the northern part of Sri Lanka.

Salt is an essential commodity with inelastic demand. Since salt has been needed from time immemorial, man has used his intellectual and environmental resources for selecting the place and choosing the mode of manufacture of salt all through history. Salt industry occupies a prominent role in the rural economy; it provides and generates income to the rural people, particularly those with little lands. Around 1.27 lakh persons are employed directly by the salt industry functioning in our country. The output of the salt industry is indispensable to the manufacture of washing soda, baking soda, caustic soda, hydrochloric acid, bleaching power and many other chemicals.

The world salt production was 2,333 lakh tonnes in the year 2010. The main salt producing countries are U.S.A, China, India and Germany. U.S. leads in the world salt production with 475 lakh tonnes followed by China about 370 lakh tonnes and India about 155 lakh tonnes. U.K. ranks a lowly ninth in the list of the worlds top ten salt producers, Europe is also a major salt producer. India is the third largest salt producing country in the world with an average annual production of 155 lakh tonnes in the year 2010. Salt manufacturing activities are carried out in the coastal states of Gujarat, TamilNadu, Andhra Pradesh, Maharastra, Karnataka, Orissa, West Bengal, Goa and the hinterland State of Rajasthan. Among these states only Gujarat, TamilNadu and Rajasthan produce salt in surplus to their requirement. With 1600 km long coastline Gujarat has an inherent advantage towards salt production. Apart from natural resource, the state has created excellent infrastructure which strongly supports Gujarat to become industrial super power of India. It produced 79.8 percent of common salt among the total salt production.

Tamil Nadu is the second largest producer in India, producing 11 percent of the total salt produced. In Tamil Nadu, total area allotted for salt cultivation was about 8.06 lakhs acres in the year 2010. Around 16,500 salt workers involved in salt production and most of the salt workers in Tamil Nadu belong to SC/ST communities. The average annual production of salt in Tamil Nadu in 2010 was about 14.5 lakh tones. In Tamil Nadu salt is produced in large quantities in the districts of Tuticorin, Nagapattinam Ramnad and Kancheepuram. Tuticorin leads in salt production at about 5.78 lakh tonnes followed by Nagapattinam at 4.57 lakh tonnes, Ramnad 2.05 lakh tonnes and Kanyakumari at 0.129 lakh tonnes.

In Kanyakumari District salt is produced in an around 600 acres with an estimated annual production of 0.11 lakh tonnes. Around 200 persons are employed per day in the salt industry functioning in this district. Salt production in this district has gone on a decreasing trend recording a degrowth rate of 1.8 percent. So we have tried to find out what are the reasons for this low production and the problems faced by the salt workers in this district. Keeping this in view an attempt has been made to study the economics of the salt industry in Kanyakumari District with special reference to Kovalam and Manakudy villages. They have been using nearby sea water and lake water as the sources of brine and use only solar energy as the source of energy for evaporation. Also, natural earth surface is used as the floor of crystalling beds. We found the fact that production of salt in these areas is not remunerative to have other forms of crystallising beds like those made with cement,A asphaltA lines etc.

Similarly the method of artificial evaporation is not adopted because such methods will not be cost effective. The method followed by the manufacturer to produce salt is known as the saltpan method. Saltpan is a shallow plot of land into which sea water is diverted for evaporation. For this process, sea water is brought from the nearby sea through a pipe to the saltern (place for making salt).

The salt industry in Kanyakumari District has produced 116.8 thousand tones of salt during the study period (1997-2010) and recorded a degrowth rate of 1.9 percent. The production of salt depends on seasonal factors to a great extent which are very irregular due to environmental problems. Also, the area under salt cultivation was continuously decreased year after year. It was about 200.6 acres in the year 1997 but onlyA 94.08A acres in the year 2006. The salt producers in these areas are not engaged in the production ofA by products other than gypsum. This is because the production cost ofA other by products is more than that of gypsum.

For producing salt, the producers incurred different types of costs like labour cost and material cost. In this district, labour costs were high added to by material costs and other costs (mainly because of non-availability of labour). Here, electricity charges are also very high because sea water was brought through a pipe to the saltern.

Overall the cost of production was very high because of the lack of use of modern techniques in the production of salt. The prices of salt have been fluctuating greatly between the study years. The price varies from year to year due to the differences in the cost of production and the demand for salt. The salt produced in this district has been sold to the nearest state of Kerala. Sales of salt depends quality to a large extend. The channel of distribution was simply the set of relationship between suppliers and their immediate consumers. In the present study there are two channels of salt marketing

  1. Producer-Wholesaler-Retailer-Consumers and

  2. Producer-Wholesaler-Consumer

The first channel is the most widely used channel, wherein commission agents purchase from the place of production. A They in turn sell salt to retailers. Finally the retailer sells this to the consumer. In second channel, the wholesaler directly purchases from the producer and directly sells to the consumer.

200 workers engage in salt production activities on a daily basis in the district, like stated before. Not many young people join to work in the saltern. The workers are not only engaged in salterns but also work in agricultural fields. They have low standards of education. This is because the nature of work in this industry is mostly of the unskilled type which requires no education. The working hours of the workers of the saltern differ substantially from other workers in other non-form and form-employment. The workers of the saltern, due to nature of their job and the type of industry in which they have to work, start their work early in the morning. The working hours of the labourers easily clocks 8 hours. Here wage is fixed on the basis of certain criteria. Labourers are classified into three categories such as more experienced, less experienced and fresh labourers. The labourers get the same level of wages in both areas which is as follows Rs.80 for more experienced labourers, Rs.75 for less experienced labourers and Rs.70 for fresh labourers.

The manual working days for salt workers in the study area include 250 days. A Suppose any worker remains absent from duty, he/she will lose the wage s for the day. The duration of work would vary in accordance with south west and north east monsoons. Workers in the salterns suffer from diseases caused due to the nature of their job. Eyesight impairment can be attributed to the age factor. Most of the workers are in the age group of 35-45 years and due to constant exposure to the sun, eye disease is a chronic and constant problem to them. It is not surprising that many workers are affected by skin diseases. This is also due to the nature of their job.

Salt is one of the important ingredients in human food. It is produced in large quantities on the seashore. The workers engaged in the production of salt are underpaid and their living conditions are very poor. With sophisticated techniques of production, the quantity produced can also be increased. Therefore, the government must come forward to determine a remunerative price for salt and encourage the salt producers to pay higher wages for these workers. The Government is providing Iodinized salt in ration shops but the producers in this district have been producing only common salt which lacks in market value. The government must provide facilities to these workers to produce Iodized salt. Since, the modern trend among the consumers is to use only iodised salt, the government must facilitate the conversion of common salt into iodised salt, so that the market value of a salt will also be increased. The salt-production industry is here to stay for as long as we take a palatable interest in food. It is a strange paradox for the producers of this wonder ingredient to be living in subpar conditions. They are worth their salt and need to be treated that way.

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