The fields are silvery white with raw salt crusts in the vicinity of Nawa, a small town on the northwestern banks of Sambhar lake, India’s largest inland lake. Nawa lies about 90 kilometres east of Jaipur. Also an extensive saline wetland and a Ramsar site, the blinding white salt flats stretch as far as one can see. The place is a key wintering area for thousands of pink flamingos and other migratory birds from northern Asia and Siberia. Surrounded by the Aravalli on all sides, the lake straddles Nagaur, Sikar, Ajmer and Jaipur districts of Rajasthan. It is fed by rivers Mendha, Runpangarh, Khandel and Karian. The lake’s depth at Nawa fluctuates from 60 cm during summers to about 3 m during monsoons.
Nawa has seen common salt farming for over thousands of years, from the time the salt pans were controlled by the Chouhan Rajputs. At Korsina, one of the villages on the south side of the lake, one can see a railroad built by the British before India’s independence to provide connectivity between the Sambhar lake city and the salt works.
Tough life of salt workers
Salt has a special place in India’s freedom struggle. Mahatma Gandhi used it as a weapon of civil disobedience to galvanise the freedom struggle. The British monopoly on the production of salt was broken in 1930 when salt was produced by Indians following the historic Dandi march. Seventy years post independence, little has changed. Salt is taken for granted and so are the salt workers, the nondescript toilers who extract salt from the lake.
Raghu, a salt worker from Korsina has been extracting salt from the Sambhar lake since he was a child. “The salt here has high demand because of the presence of high sodium chloride in its brine,” says Raghu. He shows us a long dam made of sandstone in the lake. “Once the salt water reaches a certain concentration, it is released from the western side to the eastern side by lifting the dam gates. To the east of the dam are salt evaporation ponds where salt has been farmed for many years. The eastern side is 80 square km in area and comprises salt reservoirs, canals and salt pans separated by narrow ridges,” says Raghu. He, along with his wife Hemwati, who hails from the neighbouring village of Kanseda, have been digging wells for over two decades. This draws the briny groundwater to the surface and they then rely on evaporation for the formation of white salt crystals.
“Like thousands of families at Kanseda and Korsina in this salt-producing area, we were engaged in harvesting salt when we were as young as 10. We have been toiling since then, exposed to the relentless sun and temperatures as high as 40 degrees during summers. But I won’t allow my children to toil like we did. They go to school,” says Raghu.
There are 38 villages around the lake and the salt workers from here are exposed to serious occupational dangers. Thousands of people work in inland salt production. Some are also engaged in loading, unloading and packing. “Our wages are as low as Rs 150 a day for men and Rs 120 a day for women. This way, we are forever poor. Our shack is just next to a salt pan. We work barefoot in this white desert without any protective gear for nine to 10 hours a day. Our feet absorb the salt and are prone to become septic. The work is very arduous and involves levelling of land and construction of checks or boundary walls in the kyaris,” says Ramachander Singh, a salt worker from the area.
A study in the area in 2005 indicates that “workers working close to salt milling plants may inhale salt particles floating in the air, leading to a rise in plasma sodium, which, in turn, may increase the blood pressure and the risk of hypertension.” Eye problems and blindness from the intense reflection of the sun from the water surface are common here. Most people suffer from poor health and very few live beyond 50 or 60 years. Even dead bodies are difficult to cremate due to body’s high salt content,” says Singh.
Illegal production of brine and salt impacts Sambhar’s ecology
“The Sambhar lake produces 32 lakh tonnes of clean salt every year, of which 30 lakh tonnes is illegally produced. The lake is mostly managed by Sambhar Salts Ltd. (SSL), a joint venture of the Hindustan Salts Ltd. and the Rajasthan government. Most of the salt production by the evaporation of brine in the lake is done illegally,” says Ajay Dubey, an environmental activist. The northern and western banks of the Sambhar lake are particularly infamous for illegal salt production. The ecology of the area has been affected and the number of flamingos wintering in the lake has dipped drastically over the years. In Nawa, one can see numerous earthmoving machines, heavy duty compressors and drill machines being used by private salt producers for digging borewells, putting submergible pumps and laying electric cables openly.
The excessive extraction of groundwater in Sambhar lake is forcing farmers in the neighbouring villages to opt out of agriculture, says Dhanraj Sharma, secretary, Prayatna Sansthan, an NGO based at Solawata, a village barely 10 kilometres away from the lake. “Salt extraction process has undergone a massive change and is more dependent on groundwater than the monsoon. Earlier, seasonal river waters used to drain into the lake, react with the lake sediments and become brine in over 50 days as the water evaporated from the salt pans. Now, the seasonal rivers have less water. So, crystallised salt is produced from water from deep borewells in just 15 days. The production process has been shortened. Over 10 borewells operate in every acre, so groundwater tables have gone down rapidly. Tankers bring in water from faraway villages, leading to water scarcity elsewhere,” adds Sharma.
Is there any solution to it?
People have been looking for solutions and have approached the administration from time to time. “First information reports have been lodged at the Nawa police station. To deal with electricity thefts for illegal groundwater extraction, a writ petition was filed against the Rajasthan state electricity distribution company (DISCOM) before the Rajasthan high court by Sambhar Salts Limited but to no avail,” says Dubey. The state government had to set up the Vinod Kapoor Committee under pressure from the public. In its 2010 report, the committee highlighted the “illegal business of brine extraction in the lake”.
The report notes that there are over 13,000 illegal tube wells in the wetland area. This amounts to an illegal business worth thousands of crores. The report recommended removing unauthorised borewells, digging up of 4 ft x 4 ft trench all along the boundary of Sambhar Salts Limited. However, the administration has shown reservations about digging the trench.
People finally took the route of litigation to put an end to the commercial and other activities detrimental to the ecosystem of the wetland. Alarmed by the impact on the wintering areas for flamingos, a public interest litigation (No. 108 of 2013) was filed in 2013 by Naresh Kadyan at the Supreme Court of India about borewell mafia and illegal encroachments around Sambhar lake. This litigation is pending decision. More recently, a petition was filed in the national green tribunal (NGT) by Ajay Dubey and the villagers of Sinodiya.
“As per the petition, commercial and other activities detrimental to the ecosystem of the wetland are being carried out in and around the Sambhar lake contrary to the provisions of the Wetland (Conservation and Management) Rules 2010 framed under the Environment Protection Acts of 1986. The NGT has issued orders putting a stop to illegal activities,” says Dubey.
The NGT, in its order on November 4, 2016 has directed the state government not to make any further allotments or permit new salt pans within the wetland areas or in the "no construction zone" identified for the said purpose in accordance with the Wetland Rules, 2010. “The state government was to set up a committee and work on implementing the recommendations and submit the compliance report within six months i.e., in May 2017. The state government has not enforced it so far and illegal salt production continues in the stretch,” says Dubey.
As per the NGT orders, allotments of salt pans that fall within the wetland and run contrary to the mandate of Wetland Rules, 2010 were to be reviewed by the state wetland authority and the allotments cancelled by the Rajasthan government. Dubey says that “illegal salt production continues in the area as it has not been properly surveyed and mapped by the revenue department. Also “large stretches of village common lands are being used on lease for illegal salt production,” says Ramachander Singh.
The government should implement protective measures against the occupational health hazards among salt workers. Awareness can be increased among the workers through health education. Not only that, the worksites i.e., salt pans that are usually far away from the workers' habitations ought to have basic amenities like housing and drinking water. Health camps should be organised and gumboots and face masks provided to dry salt workers.
“The nexus between the business and political interests in the area is so high that it will take a lot of effort to improve the benefits or legal protection for the salt workers and also put an end to the damage of the area’s ecology,” says Dubey.
Is the government listening?