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Wise Coastal Practices for Sustainable Human Development Forum

The social cost of salt extraction

Posted By: Kavita Khanna
Date: Saturday, 5 February 2000, at 3:31 p.m.

In Response To: The repercussions of salt extraction / Bhavnagar Bhal-India. (R. Sudarshana)

Indeed, Gandhi still lives and proves there is nothing as powerful as the British Empire. This is the benefit of having a functioning and living democracy. Change also means standing behind something. Otherwise cynicism becomes the biggest obstacle to change---- dismissive and highly obstructive.

Massive transformation in thinking and behaviour should evolve into reflective consciousness to actually bring about a sustainable society.

An example of immigrant labour as human fallout of development is the salt workers' battle for survival in the coastal region of Gujarat.

The salt workers work in conditions and temperature that are evocative of hell. The constant exposure of bare skin to saline water has its consequences. These people suffer from poor nutrition, living as they do in makeshift tents in the desert throughout the salt season. Potable water has to be supplied to them along with the bare essentials of life. Their poor diet has led to a high incidence of tuberculosis.

These landless labourers have little by way of an alternative livelihood. They remain trapped in a cycle of debt, condemned to cook salt for the bigger salt merchants in the area who advance them credit during the off-season. Not surprisingly, these merchants are extremely concerned that their traditional relationships with the salt workers are not disrupted.

The argument that emerges is just as circular as the occasional twister that erupts from the still surface of the ocean. Protect the poor worker. Keep him that way. But the absence of an alternative is not an excuse to perpetuate a difficult and damaging way of life.

Why must the salt workers remain condemned to exploitation simply because they know of no other way to survive. The salt merchants are the most vociferous among those who lay their claims on the land, while the actual claimants are the voiceless denizens of the coastal region. But there are silent ones among the invaders too, such as ‘prosopis juliflora', the exotic plant species that is taking over the local vegetation resulting in a drastically altered landscape and loss of grassland areas.

Those who fight over depleting water, are destroyed by failing crops and starving livestock, become diseased by working in polluted mines and in environments that are deteriorating all around, are almost always the poor.

The health of the wilderness, if ensured through a more participatory, yet scientifically planned management system, will be the only way that ecology and equity concerns can be married satisfactorily.

New ways and means to develop alternate livelihoods should be explored for local communities that are ecologically sustainable.

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