It’s the most quotidian of seasonings, squatting primly on virtually every dining table and in every household cupboard. Its grains are unremarkable, innocuous, readily dissolved. Unlike its companion condiments, pepper and pickle and the like, it feels no need to flaunt its presence. Salt bides its time.
You’d never guess that it’s made from the union of one of the most noxious gases known to man and an alkali metal that quite literally explodes when it comes in contact with water .
You’d also never guess the human toll exacted by its production.
As part of our Thematic Conference on Education, nine other AIF fellows and I were granted the unique opportunity to visit the salt pans of Kutch, which have been in more or less continuous operation for over six centuries. According to one study by the British Geological Survey, India – the third largest producer of salt in the world – generated approximately 2.5 crore (25 million) tons of the substance in 2012 (following China at 6.2 crore and the United States at 4.0 crore) . The Salt Commissioner of India reports that 76.7% of that amount is harvested in Gujarat , and much of that quantity comes from the district of Kutch, where the ground water is ten times saltier than seawater. (This is a relic of Kutch’s ancient geological history: many thousands of years ago, most of Gujarat was submerged by the Arabian Sea.) The briny groundwater is pumped into pools roughly 25 meters by 25 meters, where an iterative process of evaporation and induced crystal formation yields the coveted harvest .
Salt has a played long and storied role in human civilization. Biologically speaking, sodium ions – of which table salt is the primary dietary source – are crucial to the function of neurotransmitters, which facilitate signal transduction across neural synapses. More prosaically, if we didn’t have salt, intelligent life as we know it would not exist.
In terms of social and political history, the story of salt is hardly less compelling. Before the advent of refrigeration, salt’s utility as a preservative was unparalleled. Indeed, salt was one of the world’s earliest forms of currency: one of my favorite etymological tidbits (though some linguists dispute the claim) is that the word “salary” comes from the Latin “salarium” meaning “salt-money” . Empires have risen and fallen based on access to this crucial resource. Cities derive their names from the ionic condiment: any English town with “wich” in its name will likely have been a center of salt production , and Salzburg’s saline origins speak for themselves. The Via Salaria, or “Salt Road,” which bisected Italy from Rome on the West to the Adriatic on the East, was the primary corridor for salt trade throughout the Empire . The salt caravans of Azalai (from Taoudenni to Timbuktu) and Taghlamt (from Fachi to Niger) are still very much active in Africa, and at their height they consisted of tens of thousands of camels traversing hundreds of kilometers of unforgiving desert . In many cultures, particularly Arabic society, gifting a visitor salt is the ultimate act of hospitality. From this custom, we have derived the notions of namak halal (“righteous or loyal salt,” denoting bonds of friendship and trust) and namak haram (“forbidden or treacherous salt,” which arises when trust is broken).
Okay okay, you’re thinking. We get it. Salt is a big deal. What does this have to do with development?
Let’s return to present-day Gujarat. Our jeep trundled over the dunes to reveal vast, shallow pools of murky water, glistening beneath a partially haze-obscured January sun. In the levees between the pans, hillocks of white crystals marched in neat parallel rows towards the horizon, just beyond which stretched the sea. Kids shrieked and and tumbled over one other as they ran in giddy circles around a cluster of sheds. Women clad in bright bandhani garments hung clothes on a line. A scruffy goat surveyed the proceedings with a bored expression while chewing on a fence. Most of the salt workers hail from distant villages in Gujarat, but a few have migrated from as far away as Uttar Pradesh or Madhya Pradesh in search of work. The settlements here are growing more permanent, despite the lack of government amenities (including readily available potable water). As it turns out, it’s fairly easy to squat on land that no one wants.
It was 10:30 a.m. on Friday in mid-winter and the workday was just winding down. Though the day was mostly overcast and a bit nippy, you could get a sense for the sweltering heat and scorching brightness that characterize life in the pans; so salt workers typically begin their days at midnight and finish by late morning. There was only one young woman in the pans when we arrived, sporting an orange hooded jacket and scraping rhythmically away at her shallow basin of water. She wore no protective gear: no sunglasses or goggles to block the glare, no rubber boots to protect her feet from the corrosively saline waters. She glanced briefly at the jeepful of visitors scrambling down the slope but quickly turned her attention back to her work. The relentless scratching sound of her rake lent a chill to the air that was not entirely a function of the season.
The process she was undertaking – dragging a rake through shallow pans of briny water to hasten the formation of crystals – will be repeated around ten times in increasingly concentrated salt solutions, until finally the water evaporates and leaves salt crystals behind for harvesting. It takes approximately 15 days for a worker to produce 15 tons of salt; for this, she will receive 30 rupees per ton. Employers front each family a weekly allowance for groceries, which is extracted from their net earnings at the end of the season. Depending on how much salt a family has managed to produce and how many cash advances it has taken, the family may end the year with a negative balance. Thus, working in the salt pans amounts to a form a form of bonded labor: the families must return year after year to claw their way out of debt and escape what is effectively indentured servitude.
The place was eerie, I will not lie, and when we posed for a group picture, some of us found it difficult to muster up a smile.
On our last full day of the conference, en route to Dholavira – a Harappan archaeological site dating back nearly 5 millennia – the scrubby flatlands of northwestern Gujarat gave way to a vast salt desert, staggering in its expanse. The infamous Rann of Kutch is a seasonal salt marsh encompassing almost 3000 square miles just on the border with Pakistan. At this time of year (mid-winter), the waters have receded, leaving only a glittering white precipitate in their wake.
We stepped, blinking, off the bus and shielded our eyes against the blinding whiteness, which extended beyond the horizon in every direction. The crystals crunched coarsely underfoot, and if you were very, very quiet, you could just discern the gentle tinkling noise of grain against grain as the pressure of your footstep rippled outwards from the point of impact. We were mesmerized. We marveled at how, when you looked closely at a single crystal, you could discern tinges of pink and green and blue betraying mineralogical impurities. We crumbled the stuff between our fingertips. We sniffed at it tentatively. We let it linger on our tongues.
I don’t know what we were expecting: maybe to register the ache of countless generations of arduous, unending toil on our tastebuds.
But it simply tasted like salt.
If you’d like to learn more, kindly listen to a podcast I created about the 2017 Education Thematic Conference in Kutch.
 Chemistry magic!! 😀
 “World Mineral Production 2008 to 2012.” World Mineral Statistics Archive. British Geological Survey, NERC. http://www.bgs.ac.uk/mineralsuk/statistics/worldArchive.html
 “Salt Industry in India.” Government of India Salt Commissioner, Ministry of Commerce and Industry, Department of Industrial Policy and Promotion. http://saltcomindia.gov.in/industry_india.html?tp=Salt.
 Press Trust of India. “Salt Pan Workers of the Rann of Kutch.” The Hindu. 28 Jan. 2013. http://www.thehindu.com/todays-paper/tp-in-school/salt-pan-workers-of-the-rann-of-kutch/article4355337.ece.
 Kurlansky, Mark. Salt: A World History. (Turtleback School and Library Binding Edition). Turtleback Books, 2003.
 Platner, Samuel Ball. A Topographical Dictionary of Ancient Rome. Edited by Thomas Ashby. Cambridge Library Collection. Archaeology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015.
 Imperato, Pascal James. African Historical Dictionaries. Vol. 11, Historical Dictionary of Mali. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1977.