Till about a year ago, clouds used to bring tears to their eyes and the sun was their best friend. For salt pan owners, a bright, sunny, even hot day meant enough heat for evaporation, leaving behind sparkling white crystals of salt. But after the non-renewal of leases by the Central government for their lands, it’s as if cloudy skies have come to stay.
Muthukumar (name changed), a fourth-generation owner-cum-worker of a one-acre salt pan, said that for the past year he has been without work. “I have been working in this pan from when I learnt the ropes from my father. I have not studied much and don’t know any other trade for me to switch to. I have three school-going children and now do not want to work as a labourer on any other pan,” he added.
This is the state of hundreds of small lessees, who worked on salt pans on lands belonging to the Central government. “Those who could afford it have gone to court and obtained a stay. Those who could not, have just been forced to stop working on their lands and are out of jobs. We can only request that the Centre understand the pain of salt pan lessees and extend our leases,” said M.E. Varadhan, Mahatma Gandhi Salt Pan Owners and Lessees Association, Marakanam.
The government decided to end the leases on the ground that the lands would be tendered as in other trades. “But what it did not understand is that unless the lands remain with holders for long periods, nobody will be willing to invest money on the lands. Every year after the monsoon, the pans need to get a fresh layer of soil and the furrows and water channels have to be repaired. There are long-term investments including power supply and construction of buildings, which are necessary for quality production. If the lease is given for three years or lesser, people will not bother to invest and will just run the show for some time and then quietly quit the trade,” a salt industry expert explained. For those in the salt industry, their profession is a passion. “We earn just ₹10-15 per 100-110 kg bag of salt, which usually sells at ₹120-140 a bag. The rates differ from place to place and depend on the quality. And from that money we must take our salaries and pay our staff, which is not much. For generations our families have developed salt lands that were located in godforsaken places that did not have even basic facilities. I remember in the 1980s there were no toilets even in Valinokkam in Ramanathapuram district. But for people whose grandparents had joined Mahatma Gandhi in his Salt Satyagraha, lack of toilets or power supply did not matter, it still does not,” said Kumaresan, a salt producer and salt mandi owner.
Insiders in the salt industry alleged that the Central government was trying to do away with lessees in the State since it wanted to help private companies in the business.
Threat of protests
“It is trying to kill the State’s salt trade, which is 20 lakh tonnes a year. Already, many private pan owners are slowly converting their lands into real estate or using the vast empty spaces as container parking yards. We will not allow the government to convert salt lands for any other use. We will stage protests against any such move since over 60,000 workers across the State depend on the industry. They know no other trade and live on loans during the non-production period every year. We have been demanding a non-production period dole for salt pan workers like that provided for fishers. It would help families,” said K. Ponraj of the Salt Pan Workers Union-CITU, Thoothukudi, whose family owned a small pan but had to sell it.
Fee too steep
Apart from the move to stop grant of lease extension, the steep increase in assignment fee and ground rent is also affecting the industry.
“Many manufacturers have gone to court against the increase since otherwise they would have to take loans to pay this amount. The government should not treat salt pans like coal blocks that are profitable. We do not get much profit. The ground rent was ₹1 per acre and assignment fee was ₹1.50 per tonne back in the eighties. Subsequently, two more revisions happened with the ground rent going up to ₹5 per acre per annum and the assignment fee to ₹10 per tonne per annum, with a minimum production of 20 tonnes per acre per annum. In October 2013, ground rent was increased a hundred-fold. Ground rent became ₹120 per acre per annum and it was to be collected in advance,” explained a small producer who claimed he had been forced to stop production.
Similarly, assignment fee increased to ₹100 per tonne per annum subject to a minimum yield in the area, he added.
Nodal officer steps in
Meanwhile, the Nodal Officer, Tamil Nadu Salt Industry, after holding discussions with salt producers and traders, has written to the Industries Department asking that it take up the issue of renewing salt land leases once every 20 years, and revising the assignment fee and ground rent on a par with the State government with the Centre.
In his letter, the nodal officer pointed out that in view of the importance of salt to the economy, the government of India had constituted various committees including the Salt Expert Committee in 1948, Estimates Committee in 1950, Departmental Committee in 1950 and Manu Bhai Shah Committee in 1958 to look into various aspects of the salt Industry.
The committee under the chairmanship of Mr. Shah recommended that government lands should ordinarily be leased for a period of 99 years and terms of existing leases should be extended to this period. The revenue should also be the same for all salt producing States, so as to provide a level playing ground to all manufacturers.
On their part, manufacturers, traders and workers hope that their pleas will be heard. They have been sending representations to the Centre for over four years now but the issues remain unresolved.
“There is no full-time Central Salt Commissioner to whom we can represent our woes. The government should understand the history of the industry, its working, the passion that the stakeholders have for their work and help it to grow instead of stifling it,” said an industry source.
Article source: https://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/chennai/with-the-centre-deciding-against-renewing-leases-of-salt-pan-lands-the-future-of-the-traditional-industry-is-under-a-cloud-tamil-nadu-salt-industry/article28622675.ece