Capturing the lives of Marakkanam’s salt pan workers.

Close to Pondicherry, on the section of the East Coast Road that connects the city with Chennai, a fascinating and unusual landscape captures the attention of passersby. Upon getting closer to the fields, one is blinded by the brightness of the scorching sun, and within minutes, one’s throat becomes parched. These are the circumstances under which the salt pan workers of Marakkanam, Tamil Nadu labour.

Small groups of people listlessly toil in these leached fields, working for more than nine hours every day. They stand on saltwater, which cools but also cuts the soles of their feet. Some travel for as long as two hours to earn about INR 120-250 (USD 2.2-4.6) per day; women are generally paid on the lower end of that spectrum. Many of them are steeped in debt.

India is the third-largest producer of salt in the world. In 2009-10, the export of 40 lakh tonnes of salt – from a total production of 240 lakh tonnes – contributed a foreign exchange earning of INR 4 billion (USD 74.1 million) to the Indian economy. The western state of Gujarat leads the salt production in the country, contributing about 76.7 percent, followed by Tamil Nadu with 11.2 percent. While their contemporaries in Gujarat have moved on to more mechanized forms of production, the workers at Marakkanam continue to manually produce about 50,000 tonnes of salt from 3300 acres every year.

Over the years, working in such harsh environments without any protective gear, some of these workers suffer from blindness. It is widely reported that when they are cremated, their feet do not burn because of all the embedded salt. Despite the ubiquitous presence of salt in everyday life and the economic contributions that these workers make, their hardships lie behind these indispensable crystals, hidden from our sights.