A young homemaker and IAS aspirant has sought to draw the attention of policymakers to the plight of salt pan workers by making a short film and launching an online petition to create safer working conditions for labourers in Thoothukudi’s salt pans.
“Since most of these workers tend to migrate between pans, there is no official record of the number of people employed in the salt industry,” S. Sujitha, 29, who is based in Chennai, told. “The lack of documentation is just one among the many problems that these labourers face,” she added.
A postgraduate in software engineering from the Vellore Institute of Technology, Ms. Sujitha developed an interest in the plight of salt pan workers when she was preparing for her UPSC exams, due to be held in June.
“I had always wanted to do something to improve their situation, but I lacked the resources to take it [my initiative] further. It was only when I joined a year-long scholarship programme called ‘She Creates Change Learning Lab’ at Change.org in November 2018 that I decided to highlight the issue prominently,” she said.
She was in Tiruchi — her hometown — recently, en route to Thoothukudi, where she and her husband were planning to make a short film on salt pan workers.
Ms. Sujitha has started an online petition on the advocacy platform www.change.org, and has addressed it to DMK MP T.K.S. Elangovan, in the hope that the issue would become part of the party’s manifesto.
“I felt the issue deserved action at the government level, rather than from the salt pan owners or corporate social responsibility (CSR) fund managers,” she said. “Not just the DMK, but any party that comes to power should treat the situation seriously,” she added.
Among the suggestions Ms. Sujitha has put forward are the use of protective glasses and waist belts that can hold water bottles, regular health check-ups, creating awareness on workplace safety, maintaining registers to keep track of the number of workers, upgrading salaries and providing alternative livelihood opportunities to workers during the lean season.
“If these measures are implemented in Thoothukudi, I’m sure all the other salt pans in the State will follow suit,” said Ms. Sujitha. “Protective gear is already being used by Gujarat’s salt manufacturers, and costs just ₹1,000 per kit,” she pointed out.
Salt is ‘harvested’ after brine (salted water or seawater) in shallow ponds (pans) evaporates in daylight. The manufacturing season starts in mid-February and extends up to September. “While on duty, labourers don’t get enough time to drink water, so renal complaints are very common among salt pan workers,” said Ms. Sujitha, who has observed the conditions in eight production units in Thoothukudi.