In 1930, when Gandhi marched to Dandi in order to allow the extraction and production of salt from seawater, his march gained worldwide attention and gave impetus to the Indian independence movement. He wouldn’t have thought this salt production would mar the lives of a certain section of his people for generations to come. Bharti,a 12 year girl met me in in the salt pans of Mithapur, Gujarat. Out of curiosity, she asked me which country I was from. Either she couldn’t believe that an Indian girl would travel so far and carry such a camera or she had no concept of distinguishing states and countries. I explained to her that I belonged to the same country as her, but a different state. I understood her predicament later when I realized she hasn’t ever been to a school. And not just her, there were many other children around her who had never been to a school.
My first thought after meeting Bharti was, that since her parents were coming to work they might not want to leave their children behind at home, and hence she would just be a spectator to the activities around her. But to my surprise, Bharti joined the work along with other adults on the salt plant after a while. I saw her lifting the heavy pans full of salt which were way too heavy for her thin arms. Her repeated movements of lifting salt and filling the tractors were fast, painful and yet she was smiling when our eyes met. Perhaps some people accept their fate too early in their lives.
It is known to everyone what health disasters salt workers face in their lives. There is a saying here that if you are a saltpan worker, you have three ways to die: first gangrene, second TB (tuberculosis) or third blindness. In every house, people die one of these ways. I wasn’t sure why this little girl Bharti was left to do this work. She wasn’t using any gloves or plastic shoes which the government authorities are supposed to provide to all salt workers. Later, I found out her father wanted her to work. In her own words “My father says I am not going to keep you, if you don’t work…”
Bharti finished her work quickly and got back to me to see my camera. I handed over the camera to her and let her take a few pictures. While I was thinking this girl could become anything in her life, somewhere in my heart, I knew her future was around these salt pans . We got along really well and she complimented me “you have such a spotless skin, but I am getting darker day by day working here”. She was a beautiful girl in all the ways possible. I felt so much pain, as there was little I could do for her. The salt workers reach the plant at 3 am and work till mid-day. It becomes extremely difficult to keep the eyes open when sun is high and I could imagine how hard it could be in when the scorching summer would arrive. Their skin burns due to a continuous exposure to highly saturated salt.
Most workers here in the salt pans haven’t been able to escape this work for generations. While the contractor and companies earn millions, the wages have remained so low for them. The workers pointed an old man to me; this man has been working here for the last 40 years and has never seemed to have any problems with it. The workers were laughing about it. Is it too much to ask for an occupation that doesn’t harm your healthy lifestyle and doesn’t make you literally die of work? The average life span here is 50- 60 years. I even got to know that their hands and feet were difficult to burn during cremation because of the high salt content. Their legs are then collected by their relatives and buried separately in a small grave with salt so that they can decompose naturally. It’s just not Bharti, there are many more who are waiting for an opportunity to live a healthy life, to get education and see life
beyond these salt pans.
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