Mr. Dakshinamoorthy, the president of Adi Dravidar Salt Producers and Distributors Cooperative Society, Cheyyur has spent more than 40 years in salt production as an independent salt producer. The salt pan land leased to his society could be transferred to a major Indian manufacturer for producing gypsum for industries. The salt pan is a land of more than 500 acres lying west of Buckingham canal in Cheyyur.
“Our ancestors and parents were salt pan workers. They used to work for Jameens(local landlords) who were leasing lands from British to produce salt. All those lands were fenced and every day we would be checked to make sure that we didn’t take any salt from the site” says Dakshinamoorthy. “The land near the Canal was not used at that time and as water from the canal flooded over the land and evaporated, salt rocks were left over. Initially our people would just bring this salt from the wasteland and sell to traders. Then they started occupying these unused land and started working for themselves,” reminisces Dakshinamoorthy.
According to him, the Jameens opposed this move because they were losing the labour for their(jameen’s) salt pans. They started claiming these unused land as theirs. “This land and surrounding acres” he says pointing to his own hut “belonged to one jameen woman”. The predominantly dalit community labourers took the jameen to the court in pre-independent India to claim the land that they were cultivating and won. “When India was celebrating Independence in 1947, we were also celebrating our independence from Jameens” he smiled.
Thus the Adi Dravidar Salt Producers and Distributors Cooperative Society was born in 1954 over a lease of 330 acres land and expanded to over 576 acres. After Independence, the Indian Government retained the ownership of the land similar to British government and leased these lands to salt producers. Tamil Nadu accounts for 12% of salt production in the country. In Tamil Nadu, almost all of the salt pan lands belong to either State or Central Government with an estimated 40000+ acres in salt production along the coast. These leases are renewed every 12 years by State and every 20 years by Central Government. Most of the leaseholders are companies and individual producers mainly Nadars and Mudaliyars says Dakshinamoorthy.
Cooperatives were setup for Adi Dravidars. Of the several cooperatives in Tamil Nadu, some, such as the Kovalam Society, have stopped functioning. The Marakkanam Salt Pan Cooperative Society still functions fairly successfully. The Cooperative model setup in Cheyyur is based on individual family based enterprise model. The producers harvest salt from one to few acre plots in the cooperative. “When I was a student in 8th standard, Rajaji, then Chief Minister introduced Gurukul education. I used to take part in the demonstrations against Gurukul education and anti hindi demonstrations. After participating in demonstrations, I could not continue education and I started working in salt pans,” he reminisces.
“Entire families would be engaged in the production over 4 summer months. Production was good – about 1500 to 2000 bags of salt in a year. Out of every bag we farmed and sold, we used to pay 25 paise to the cooperative for administration. The administration comprising also Government Officials were supposed to do the marketing. But in reality, we did the production and distribution,” says Dakshinamoorty. “We would work in the salt pan before going to school. That one acre of land educated me and my brothers,” says Shanmugam, whose parents also were producers in the society . The rest of the year they would catch prawns, crabs and fish from the canal and the flooded plains or work in agriculture to support themselves. “Even though only 330 acre land was allotted to us, we were using all the 2200 acre land (which the salt pan land is part of) to support ourselves,” they say.
However, issues that brought the salt production in this region down speak of how government policies collude to work against the poor. The first was the declining source of brine or saline water. For the salt pans, the brine usually comes from the backwaters or from the (saline ingressed from coast) ground water pumped using borewells. For the impoverished salt pan producers in this region, who could not afford borewells, the main source of brine was Buckingham Canal. “In those days, water transport was vital in these areas. So the Government would tender every year to desilt the canal. With the improvement of road transport, the desilting work stopped reducing the brine availability in the canal. Those who could not afford to put borewells found it difficult to meet ends,” says Dakshinamoorthy.
When the Government introduced iodised salt, the individual producers lacked enough technology knowhow or resources to buy the machines for mixing the iodine and the salt. “The final straw was when tsunami came in 2004. It silted the debris over the salt pans and removing them was a major expense. Lots of producers could not recover.” say the salt producers. Currently only some 100 acres are being harvested, says Shanmugam, and that too by affluent producers. With reduced production, the Society has not been able to renew the lease for the salt pan land.
The industrial development around this region has opened new opportunities for the educated youth in this area. According to a youth of the region, the neighboring Ford Motors Auto Manufacturer contracts two bus loads of workers to its factory. Most of them work as trainees with an aspiration to become permanent workers eventually.
Since 1999, the salt pan lands have been coveted by private corporations, claims Shanmugam. In 1999, the then State Government mooted a plan to setup a thermal power station by NTPC. “The Public hearing happened in Kanchipuram. About 1000 people went in 5 truck loads to say no to the project” says Shanmugam. After several agitations, the power station has been moved to another region 6 km from here in what is described as a wasteland, he said. Now, there is a rumor that the 2200 acre land including the 576 acre land is being considered for lease to a private company for chemical salt production.
The Society has given a petition to the Revenue Department Officer on the livelihood aspects of the land. “We are demanding permanent employment for the families which have been using this land and adequate compensation or land” says Dakshinamoorty. “Our labour has gone into making this land productive for so many generations. So why should we part with the land?” he asks. “If there was continuous brine water, we could continue the production. Even today, our people go and catch crabs/prawns in this acreage for 6 months.” “Without a guaranteed and written MOU involving all the parties, we do not want to give even an inch of our land,” he says. Shanmugam says they have been mobilizing the producers here to oppose the transfer of the land from their community into private hands.
As the Government considers the transfer of land, the rationale of socio economic justice for setting up such cooperatives are no longer the conscience for land distribution. Decades of bureaucratic attitude has not seen value in providing the necessary support for such ventures that could have been the social transformation promised by an Independent India. “We have not received any subsidy from the Government barring a loan subsidy of about Rs. 60000 from Cooperative bank” says Dakshinamoorty. Over 60 years from serfdom to jameens and British by one generation, another generation prepares to be serfs to the new masters – MNCs. In the time of FDIs and industrialization, opportunities for just process of production are quietly dying.