Common salt, an essential part of everyone's daily health requirement, causes uncommonly harsh travails for those who manufacture it.
Pattapu Shakuntala 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 leveled 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 laborers - 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 traveling 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 organizing 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 iodization. Only edible salt has to be iodized. And most of the salt produced by these people is sold in bulk to traders, so the responsibility of iodization 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.
The growing 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 gynecological 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 men.
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.
"All our 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 retail.
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 laborers. The PDSFF plans to present the demands to a government agency soon.