Pradesh (Women's Feature Service) - Common salt, an essential part of
everyone's daily health requirement, causes uncommonly harsh travails for those
who manufacture it.
has been living with deteriorating eyesight for over a decade. She also
constantly complains of headaches, dizzy spells and vaginal discharge. She also
suffers from a nagging pain in her neck, shoulders, knees and lower back. This
is, of course, in addition to the trauma of having undergone two miscarriages.
With such a long list
of ailments, one would imagine that Shakuntala is elderly. But she is in her
late 20s. So why is she plagued with so many health problems? "It is the
result of the salt work I do," she answers. "All the women in my
village have the same symptoms."
A resident of
Kothapatnam village in the coastal Prakasam district of Andhra Pradesh,
Shakuntala was born into a family of traditional salt-makers. At the age of 12,
she started working on the family's 1.5 five-acre saltpan, six months a year.
Her schedule remains the same even now.
Six years ago, she
was married into another salt-making family. "A woman's work in the salt
pans involves long hours in the sun during the hot season," she
elaborates. "At the beginning of every production cycle, the land in the
pan has to be stamped and levelled for several hours - with our bare feet. At
the end of the production process, the salt has to be carried in head-loads
from the pans to the storage platforms. Between these two activities, the older
women travel to the interiors, to various towns and villages, to sell the
salt," says Shakuntala. (A salt production cycle comprises seven days. The
pans are filled with seawater and left to dry. The sea salt, which contains
natural iodine, is ready when the water dries up.)
But for all this hard
work, the money that the women - of the 6,000-odd salt-making families in
Prakasam and an equal number who work as labourers - get is pittance.
Furthermore, the women have to pay dearly with their health. Says Battala
Seetharamamma, 50,"What we earn from all our hard work is not even enough
to treat all the ailments that come with it, let alone cover other expenses. We
live and die in sickness." She runs her own saltpan on 50 cents of land (1
cent = 0.01 acre) leased from the government.
Most saltpans in the
district are family-run. But the price that the salt fetches in bulk sales is
extremely low - anything between Rs 25 and Rs 35 (US$1=Rs 39.90) for 75 kg.
This translates into Rs 0.33 to Rs 0.45 per kg. This means that the task of the
women travelling door-to-door selling the salt is onerous. Their sales
expertise is crucial to the family finances: retail sale fetches one rupee per
kg of salt - pathetically low, but nevertheless desperately needed.
Formed in 2005, the
Prakasam District Salt Farmers' Forum (PDSFF) has studied the problems faced by
women working in saltpans. The PDSFF has been largely responsible for organising
the salt-makers and helping them with their bulk marketing of the salt.
Interestingly, salt manufacturing and sale in bulk has nothing to do with
iodisation. Only edible salt has to be iodised. And most of the salt produced
by these people is sold in bulk to traders, so the responsibility of iodisation
does not rest with them. According to Y. Ramakrishnan, project in-charge,
Social Activities for Rural Development Society (SARDS), a local NGO that
helped set up PDSFF, "Financial and health problems are common to everyone
involved in traditional salt-making, but women face distinctive problems in
both these areas."
According to the
PDSFF estimates, a woman sells about one quintal of salt every day. R.
Pothuraju, Convenor, PDSFF, says, "Women usually transport about one
quintal of salt to their retail destination, from where they carry it in
head-loads of 20 to 30 kg through the streets."
Every woman earns an
average of Rs 50 from the sale of a quintal of salt, from which they pay the
travel costs - amounting to around Rs 15 to Rs 20. "At the end of the day,
they take back no more than Rs 25 to Rs 30," says P. Sharada, co-convenor,
PDSSF. In addition, they have to endure the harassment of ticket collectors and
railway staff, as the latter object to the open loads of salt.
popularity of packaged salt has added to the woes of these women, as people in
towns are no longer willing to buy loose salt. As a result, they have to travel
further into the interiors. Commuting here is difficult and expensive and this
eats into the profit margins. "Our customer-base in towns and villages
close to our residences is dwindling each year. So we have to travel into
unknown villages more often," rues Sharada.
The health impact of
salt work is grave. "The greatest hazard of working in the saltpans,"
says Pothuraju, a resident of Pakkala village, "is the long hours of
exposure to the sun." Dehydration is common as there are no drinking water
facilities at or near the saltpans. For women, this dehydration and heat
exposure over long periods results in various gynaecological problems, from
vaginal itching to miscarriages. According to Sharada, at least 30 per cent of
women working in the saltpans have undergone miscarriages. In her village,
Ullapalem in the Singarayakonda mandala, two women have suffered miscarriages
in the last month. The families had to shell out Rs 2,500 (US $1=Rs 39) each
for treatment at private hospitals in Singarayakonda. There are no medical
facilities in the village.
Other problems such
as poor eyesight due to the glare from the salt; and the splitting of the soles
of the feet as a result of excessive contact with salt affect women as much as
Carrying heavy loads
of salt - both at the pans and while selling door-to-door - is a job reserved
for women and girls. This usually causes severe aches in the neck, back, knees
and head, and constant fatigue. Due to repeated travel into new areas and
overnight stay, these women are also at risk of sexual harassment and of
contracting HIV, Ramakrishnan notes.
financial problems would be solved if the government ensures a fair support
price for our salt," says Kuntori Sheshamma, a saltpan owner from village
Kothapatnam. "And half our health problems would disappear if drinking
water was supplied at the salt pans." Saltpan owners are also demanding a
support price of a minimum of one rupee per kg in bulk and Rs 2 per kg in
The PDSFF has helped
frame the demands of the community, including their need for potable water
facilities near the pans and for protective gear for workers - dark glasses and
suitable footwear. The forum has also listed the need for free medical
facilities and medical insurance for salt workers, both pan-owners and
labourers. The PDSFF plans to present the demands to a government agency soon.