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Sambhar Salt Lake, Rajasthan. December 2017.

Sambhar Salt Lake, Rajasthan

Once upon a time, on an early morning flight from Mumbai to Delhi, the pilot rattled two hundred groggy passengers and me with the following mid-air announcement: “For those of you on the left-hand side of the plane, if you look outside you will see India’s largest inland salt lake.” He was awakening us to Sambhar Lake in the state of Rajasthan, an fluid concentration of artificial geometries and natural pigments. I’ve also heard that Jodha and Akbar had a destination wedding here (really).

As per the new norm, everyone and every place has a Coronavirus story, and centers of salt production are no different.

Despite baseless Whatsapp rumours which claim gargling with salt water can cure one of Coronavirus, the salt industry is taking a hit in India. Or as journalist S Godson Wisely Dass reported recently, the global pandemic is “evaporating the sales and profits of the salt industry.

I’m not sure if the pun was intended, but he was on the mark.

Salt is produced on Indian soil (literally) by allowing either brine (salty groundwater) or seawater to settle in a large open field, and then evaporate, leaving behind the white crystals in isolation. With salt-workers cooped up at home, transporters off the road, and export shipments stuck at ports around the world, the industry, like many others, is grinding to a halt.

In the new silence that has befallen the salt industry, a few voices of the past are now audible, such as Amita Bhaduri.

In January of 2018 she wrote an extensive piece on Sambhar Lake, and I highly recommending diving into it. However, what fascinates me the most, is one of her conclusions regarding critical needs: “Health camps should be organised and gumboots and face masks provided to dry salt workers.”

Health camps, gumboots, and face masks. The basics. Health essentials, which governments around the world are going bat-shit-crazy to procure for their citizens, have been a need in Sambhar for decades. So why have these cries for help not been heard? Ajay Dubey, an environmental activist whom Ms. Bhaduri interviewed, had this to say:

“The nexus between the business and political interests in the area is so high that it will take a lot of effort to improve the benefits or legal protection for the salt workers and also put an end to the damage of the area’s ecology.”

I could say such a strong statement should be taken with a pinch of salt, but for many, that is just not possible right now, so I won’t. So instead, it should be taken with just a pinch, a tinge of global pain — another wakeup call reminding us that many of the world’s physical work environments are not conducive to healthy work and life. And for those having trouble relating to salt workers, the below fill-in-the-blank remix may be helpful:

“The nexus between the business and political interests in the area is so high that it will take a global pandemic to improve the benefits or legal protection for your workplace here workers and also put an end to the damage of the area’s ecology.”

Written by

Robert Stephens

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