At Work on the Salt Pan

by Self Employed Women’s Association

Muktaben was born in Malniyaad village in Surendranagar district.  They were five brothers and 2 sisters.  They would do some casual labour in their village for a livelihood. Muktaben says that “While it was difficult to have a square meal for the family, where does the question of education arise? So none of us went to school”.

At the age of 17, she got married to Jagabhai of Enjar village. Her husband was the eldest in his family and he had 3 younger brothers. Salt farming was a family business of her in-laws. She had 3 sons and 1 daughter. 1 of her son died of illness.

At her parents’ house, they had done casual labour all their life. She did not know what is a desert and how was salt production done. Her husband showed this to her and she started learning the work of salt production.

After her husband’s younger brother was married, they had to live separately from her in-laws. They had to move to a rented house. However it was difficult to pay the rent of the house with their meager income. Also they had to move to the desert for 8 months in a year. In such circumstances, it was difficult to find a house for only 4 months. Therefore they decided to build a small hut in the open land adjoining her father-in-law’s house.

Muktaben’s husband used to drink a lot of alcohol.The entire responsibility of working on the salt pans and looking after the household chores was on Muktaben’s head. Whenever her husband would become drunk, he would not work on the salt pans. If the work on the salt pans did not progress well, then the money lender would not release the installment to them. This forced Muktaben to carry on the work on the pans also. In exchange for this money that the money lender gave them, they had to sell the entire quantity of salt to him at a predetermined price. This way at the end of the season, they would have nothing left with them. They would get about 600 MT of salt produce and had to sell it to the money lender at Rs. 60 to 65 per ton. Thus when the money lender would settle the account against the money borrowed by them, most of the times they would have to come back without any money.

Muktaben then became a member of SEWA and took various trainings on salt production and quality testing.  She also became a member of the savings group and started to save regularly. She was also a member of SEWA’s trade committee and would regularly attend the meetings and represent the problems faced by the salt workers. With a view to free the members from the clutches of the middlemen and in order to provide them with good price for the salt produced by them, they decided to provide lending to a few members on a pilot basis.

On the basis of this decision, In the salt season starting from October 2007, 39 salt farmers were given revolving fund in order to help them undertake salt production. In addition to this efforts were also made for providing market linkages to these salt farmers to market the salt produced by them. Muktaben and other members of the trade committee calculated the total expenses incurred by them on production of slat. On the basis of this, they calculated the market price of the salt. These members decided that if they get a certain market price, only then can they make profit on the salt manufactured by them. Following these discussions the committee decided on a price of Rs. 135 per MT of salt produced by them. This would give them a considerable margin after deducting the expenses and the labour that they had put in.  however the traders had decided to pay a rate of Rs. 120 per MT of salt produced by the salt workers. Under this situation, Surendranagar Mahila and Balvikas Mandal (SMBVM), the local district association of these women members, had decided to pay a price of Rs. 135 to the salt workers. Having seen that SMBVM is paying a price of Rs. 135 to the salt workers, the other salt workers also went to the traders and negotiated on the price of the salt. Now the traders were forced to pay a price of Rs. 135 for the salt. Thus, SMBVM had provided revolving fund to 39 farmers from the current project, however because of that total 4500 salt farmers from this area got a benefit and a higher price of Rs. 135 for the salt produced by them. Here we can see the importance of organising. Since the salt farmers were organised, they were able to negotiate for themselves. Thus even if the organisation cannot give benefit to all the workers, the fact that they were organised made a difference. As a result of being organised, 4500 slat worker families were benefited by an increase in employment and income due to price rise.

As a result of this increase in income, Muktaben and other women from the village now send their children to school also.  She is now respected by the communities in the village. She has also started operating a tools and equipments library in the desert. Earlier whenever there was some problem with their tools, they had to go to Halvad village to get the tools and waste 2 days in that. All this would affect the production of salt and thereby their income.

In the year 2008, Muktaben’s husband suddenly died. She was young and now had the burden of the entire house and the children. However, her in-laws were very supportive and she continued working with SEWA. In the year 2009 also she borrowed funds from SEWA and continued working on salt production.

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