Lockdown: Salt production in Mumbai falls, sales also plummet

This year there is little activity at the salt pans -- as salt farms are called -- adjoining the Eastern Express Highway in suburban Mulund because of the lockdown to contain coronavirus.

MUMBAI: Every year, the Marathi New Year Gudi Padwa marks the auspicious beginning of salt sales with buyers from across Maharashtra making a beeline for salt pans of Mumbai and surrounding areas. Newer harvests with further saturation of saline waters of the sea and backwaters keep coming and the production hits a peak in May after which the workers pack the mounds to leave the fields before the onset of the monsoon.

This year there is little activity at the salt pans -- as salt farms are called -- adjoining the Eastern Express Highway in suburban Mulund because of the lockdown to contain coronavirus.

"All the men who work at salt pans come from the Palghar-Dahanu region. This is a very difficult job with skills passed down the generations. We do not depend on migrants from northern states," said one worker.


The workers, whose job starts in November, get a holiday for the Holi festival which comes a fortnight before Padwa. Holi is a favourite festival in the tribal calendar, so they go home for a few days.

But with lockdown coming into force, this year they have not returned. A security guard at one of the salt pans in Mulund said it employs over 200 workers but less than half of them have returned.

"The lockdown also meant that the traders who come here for buying salt for industrial and domestic use from as far as Solapur did not turn up," the worker said.
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Against the usual 12,500 tonnes across two depots, he estimates the production has fallen by half, and with low demand, the prices could plummet too.

The salt pans are owned by the Union government, which leases them out to private firms.

The Mumbai Metropolitan Region has salt pans in the Mulund-Bhandup belt, Wadala in central Mumbai, parts of Navi Mumbai, Pen and the Vasai-Palghar belt to the north of Mumbai.

The salt farming season starts with the preparation of fields after the monsoon. The soil has to be hardened so that dried salt left after the evaporation of seawater is not lost through the cracks in the field, the security guard explained.
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After four months of hard work, the fields become ready to start production.

Workers arrive on the farm by 3.30 in the morning and leave by 11 am.
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While they work they are only paid living expenses and take home lumpsum wages when they leave in June.

Some workers were seen milling around their temporary shacks. But the security guard did not allow interviews with them, saying the firms which have leased the land are fighting a court case, so outsiders are looked upon with suspicion.

While the pandemic, it is hoped, will prove to be a temporary calamity, the salt pan industry is also facing another threat as the real estate lobby is eying the vast tracts of land under salt farming in the space-starved Mumbai.

"Land is a goldmine in this city," the security guard says. AA KRK KRK
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