Marakkanam is located on ECR 110 km south of Chennai, and is home to large salt pan lands. Thozilalar Koodam team visited the area to learn about the damage done by the floods. There have been losses at various levels. People operating salt pans by subleasing have suffered losses because of heaps of salt being washed away by flood water. On the other hand, wage workers have suffered loss of employment, as they were stuck in their houses for a month. So far, neither of these groups been surveyed by the government for receiving relief and compensation.
The salt lands in this area are mostly owned by Central and State Governments. Most of the lands are given on 20-year leases to private players. These lessees sublease smaller portions of the land – of sizes varying from 5-20 acres – to individuals who provide the capital and manage the production. The primary lessee pays Rs 700 per year per acre as rent to the government, whereas the sub-lessee pays Rs 5000 per year per acre.
We spoke to Balaraj, who operates salt pans on a subleased area of 10 acres. He is one of the few dalits who have been able to mobilise capital for salt production. Out of the 700 tons produced in his pans last year, he had managed to sell 600 tons at Rs220 per 100kg. The rest, 100 tons of salt, was washed away by the floods. Additionally, the sand beds have been flattened and need to be repaired which would take Rs 2 lakh. Further, production for the next year would take Rs 7-8 lakh. The relief provided by the government would go to the primary lessee. The last time there was massive damage by floods in 1985, none of the relief was passed on to the sub-lessee, said Balaraj. Balaraj’s lands which are slightly low lying, continue to receive some flowing water. Fresh water required for salt production comes from Buckingham canal. Balaraj said that the growth of shrimp farming in Buckingham canal has adversely affected salt production, as the chemicals used for that caused a reduction in salt yields.
Venkatesan, a younger producer from MBC community has fared similar fate. He has leased over 5 acres and has managed production using family labour and 2 women workers for carrying the salt to storage area. He has lost over 500 tons of salt in the ensuing floods. He does not believe that the state will compensate for his loss. The phenomenon of subleasing is a well known secret with Central Government’s Salt Department having a local office and yet they are always bypassed in the compensation and rehabilitation schemes of the state.
The Marakkanam Adhi Dravidar Salt Producers Society, in its hey days used to employ over 200 workers, who were members of the society. The members were given social security akin to Industrial work force and would get benefits such as ESI, PF, pension and dividends from the collective. The society is struggling to survive due to deregularisation of market, lack of credit and mismanagement of the society. Over 12 dalit workers continue to farm over 20 acres of land in the society with family labour and very little credit. The floods have damaged the salt beds and will need to be repaired, a process that must be daunting to cash strapped society and the workers.
At the bottom of the rung are daily wage workers. The labour is divided in a gendered way where men move around the water and dredge for salt, while women’s work consists of preparing the salt pans by packing in sand, bagging the salt etc. Men make Rs 350 a day, whereas women make Rs 150. During this season, the salt production work is usually halted and the workers get work on packaging the salt for transport, which is paid at Rs 7 per 100 kg packing and Rs 5 for 50 kg packing. During the rains, the workers could not access any work and subsequent washing away of salt means that packaging work is also limited for the workers.