A salty sore : The dying Sambhar lake

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Image and Content Courtesy: Tehelka

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Amitangshu Acharya reports on Sambhar Lake's growing salt pans which have put on an ugly face of greed, disrupting the peaceful life of the locals. The reporter witnessed the villagers from Ulana, Gudha, and Bavli, in Rajasthan's Nagaur district protesting against the encroachment of the salt mafia of Sambhar lake. The villagers succeeded in keeping the contractors off their land. Following is an article which briefly narrates the current situation around Sambhar lake. It also brings out stories of corruption, ecological imbalance and hassles faced by the villagers.

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Sambhar Salt Lake- located 60km south west of Jaipur city- has 5,700-squarekilometer catchment area spreads across the districts of Nagaur, Jaipur, Ajmer and Sikar. India's largest saline lake, it has a record of salt production that goes back 1,500 years. The control of salt production passed from local communities to the Rajputs, the Mughals, the British and finally to Sambhar Salts Limited, a joint venture between Hindustan Salts Limited and the Government of Rajasthan, which regulates salt production. While mainstream India chooses to believe that Gandhi's Dandi March on March 12, 1930 ended all exploitation related to salt production, for the 90-odd villages of the catchment area of the lake, desh ka namak has a very bitter taste.

Sambhar Lake produces 2,10,000 tonnes of salt each year, placing Rajasthan among the top three salt-producing states of India. It was declared a wetland of international importance in 1990 by the Ramsar Secretariat for being a unique migratory bird habitat and wetland ecosystem. The daily life of the villagers living in the lake's catchment area is hardly glamorous, however. Here, salt is a harsh reality that harms as it sustains, giving employment, disease and, ultimately, death to those who work the salt pans.

It is a story of simple economics, splashed with greed and sprinkled with a fair bit of corruption. It costs 40 paise to produce 1 kg of salt. That kilogram is retailed for Rs 10. This high profit margin has led to the mushrooming of unauthorised salt pans and processing centres in and around the lake. Accommodative administration, politicians, and police prefer not to stand in the way of economic growth, especially when their incomes are set to grow as well. "The nexus is strong and the money chain goes a long way,"said a retired official. "We know what is happening but are helpless. Nobody wants to land in trouble".

While officals profit, not everyone is that lucky. Labourers work barefoot on the salt pans for nine to ten hours without any protective gear, causing their faces to wrinkle and become dessicated and their feet to develop thick rashes. They rarely look their age and they have a life expectancy of 45 years. With no employment benefits or legal protection, salt pan workers live at the mercy of an exploitative regime. The men are paid Rs 125 a day and the women Rs 100, with labourers often going unpaid for weeks. Compared to the owners who are usually from Haryana and Delhi, and the labour and vehicle contractors who are from Barmer and Jodhpur, the locals hardly get any benefits.

The process of extracting salt from Sambhar lake has undergone a serious transformation. The traditional process is monsoon dependent. Sambhar Lake taps water from four seasonal rivers, the Mendha, the Rupangarh, the Kharian and the Khandel and numerous streams and rivulets. This water reacts with lake sediments and becomes brine, which evaporates over 50 days, leaving behind crystallised salt. However, today most salt production units use deep borewells to extract groundwater, reducing the entire process to 15 days. Between 15 to 20 borewells operate in every bigha (0.6 acres) of land. Excess water pumping has lowered groundwater levels by almost 40 feet in the area. Deprived of recharge from subsurface flows, the lake is continuously shrinking and seasonal streams and rivers are now vanishing. In addition, the impact of the practice of using pumped water to make salt now extends beyond the periphery of the lake. Salt production units now hire tankers which plunder groundwater from areas further away. With no legislation in place to prevent unsustainable groundwater extraction, regulatory authorities remain paper tigers. Most villages on the eastern side of the lake now face an acute shortage of drinking water, causing people to migrate.

Sambhar Lake is dying. Though it is supposed to occupy an impressive 230 square kilometers, the lake hasn't had any water for the last seven to eight years. It now only has water for about seven square kilometers, most of it ankle-deep. The destruction of their habitat has kept migratory birds away for a decade. And yet, not even a whimper of protest has been heard from India's wetland experts. People around Sambhar Lake are slowly realising that collective action is the only thing that will make a difference. What seemed to be just a flash in the salt pan might actually be spreading across the landscape.

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