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Last Updated: Sunday, 10 July, 2005, 16:20 GMT 17:20 UK
Salt pan workers rebuild their lives

By Sunil Raman
BBC News, Tamil Nadu

Salt pans
The salt pans were damaged during the tsunami

Thirty-year-old Kala works under the scorching sun for up to eight hours every day making salt from sea water.

For her effort she gets paid 35 rupees (less than $1) a day.

She has no medical insurance, no hospital access and she loses her day's wages when she fails to turn up for work.

"What can I do? My husband left me and I have a school-going daughter to support," said Kala when we met her at Vedaranyam, 70 kilometres from Nagappattinam, just north of the Palk Strait that divides India from the northern tip of Sri Lanka.

Little shelter

The salt pans of Vedaranyam are spread over 500 acres of land and most of the leased owners are poor.

They own between one to two acres of land where they have made ponds to collect sea-water. Water in these ponds evaporates to leave salt that is sold to private buyers.

Hugging the Bay of Bengal, the salt pans provide little shelter from the summer sun.

There was no physical barrier to prevent the Indian Ocean tsunami waves from destroying these ponds.

Salt pan workers like Kala are poorly paid

Channels dug up to direct water into ponds, pond walls and ridges were consumed by the swirling wave.

For over four months most of these people were without jobs.

"The fear of tsunami kept us away from work. I worked in someone's house to fill my stomach. I had no choice," said Lakshmi who works on a 100-acre salt pan.

Most of the people who work in salt pans are considered low in the social hierarchy.

They have for generations been relegated to the margins of the society. Many are so-called untouchables who, in spite of laws face discrimination.

Far removed from the focus of television cameras, these workers have also received little attention in tsunami relief operations.

Around 20% of the workers own small salt pans.

Debt burden

They got some compensation from the government but many have had to take loans to reclaim land for salt production.

Seventy-year-old Kalairajan is a small farmer who also owns a small salt pan.

He tends to his farms when the region gets its annual rainfall. For the remaining eight months he works at the salt pan.

Now Kalairajan has joined other workers who are desilting channels after the tsunami.

"My debt burden has increased to 40,000 rupees ($888) after I failed to repay because of tsunami. My wife and educated children are working in salt pans as workers now," he told the BBC.

Salt pan
The salt pans are now being desilted after the tsunami

PV Ravichandran works for a local charity, FACE, that is collaborating with the international aid agency Oxfam, to help the salt workers - "We want to organise them like other workers".

Dr Ravichandran said that people go to salt pans only when they have no other source of employment.

"It entails a lot of hard work and even in the village these workers face discrimination," he noted.

Vedaranyam has a place in India's history of freedom struggle.

It was here in April 1930, that a band of people made salt in violation of the British government's decision to tax salt.

A memorial commemorating that march stands not very far from where people like Kala and Kalairajan work.

So what now for today's salt pan workers? The local administration says that all due compensation has been paid to leased owners of salt pans.

Senior official Ranvir Prasad says that a proposed housing scheme for the workers has been sent for the federal government's approval.

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