Prathap Nair tells us the story of salt – from the salt pans of Tamil Nadu to your table.
It is August and while the rest of the country is reeling under the aftereffects of rain showers ushered in by the south west monsoon, Tamil Nadu, in the rain shadow region, is at its sunny best. The small town of Vedaranyam, running along the Bay of Bengal, is no exception. And in a way, Vedaranyam’s economy depends on its rainlessness. The lesser it rains, the more salt can be produced in its salt pans that extend for acres in the Vedarnyam – Kodiyakarai stretch.
Salt production is the main source of income for many in this region and Vedaranyam contributes significantly to India’s position as the third largest salt manufacturer in the world. Many companies have manufacturing units in the region and they procure salt in bulk quantities from the farmers for further purification and packaging.
Thoothukudi is the major salt producer in Tamil Nadu with Vedaranyam following close on its heels. Salt manufactured here is exported to a vast number of countries ranging from Qatar in the Middle East to Malaysia, Indonesia, Philippines and Vietnam in the Far East. Countries like China, Japan and Nepal also figure high in the export market. Salt is produced in as much as 9000 acres of land amounting to an estimated 3.5 million tonnes.
Sunny days like this are essential for salt production. This year, when Tamil Nadu received unseasonal rains in the months of January, February and March, farmers here were forced to delay salt production because the rains flood the salt water pans. Flooding of sea water is also an issue.
People like Gopal and this elderly laborer are part of the ecosystem that drives salt production in Vedaranyam. They periodically check the pans and sweep up the salt after the water crystallizes into salt. The salt is then dried up in mounds before being filled up in sacks and carted away.
“When the water is pumped into a collection pit, it will be around 100C,” Gopal on how salt is extracted. The pumped up water is then run into square pans and is left to dry where it reaches 300C. “It turns into salt in just about 3 hours on a sunny day,” he adds. Sunny days are common here and Gopal and his companions work in the pans braving the sweltering heat that can often induce headaches.
The swept up salt, still dripping wet, is gathered in mounds and left for days to dehydrate. To prevent the mounds from getting washed in an unlikely event of a rainfall, thatched palm leaves are spread forming a protective layer. The salt, thus stored, is inspected for its consistency after about 10 days and is prepared for loading.
Companies like Chemplast Sanmar operate huge salt manufacturing units in the Vedaranyam region. Many of them procure salt from the salt pans and scenes like this – where salt is packed in gunny sacks and loaded onto trucks for purification and packaging in the industrial plants before it is ready for consumption – are common.
The vast majority of salt pans are located in the road leading to Kodiyakarai. The nose shaped Vedaranyam swamp is situated parallel to the Palk Strait – the waterway that connects Tamil Nadu with the northern part of Sri Lanka.