Life of Jena Ben - the Salt pan worker

Updated: Mar 18, 2019

The criss cross of angles, and the multi colored floating rectangles – this landscape of Rann of Kutch is profound, breathtaking and splendid . The snowy-white color of salt makes an unblemished subject for tourists, journalists and photographers alike. This is where I foray into the lives of the salt Pan workers

Salt pans appear in different colors based on salinity and formation of algae. The colors vary from hues of green, pink and red

Zoom in on the ground and the image is in sharp contrast to what is seen from a distance. The colors and glamour quickly fades as I walk around and meet Jena Ben- the salt Pan worker. Rann of Kutch is a seasonal salt marsh and is a thriving salt industry that produces three quarters of India’s white salt and employes close to hundred thousand ‘Agariyas’ as salt farmers. The Agariyas have lived in and around this area and have been salt farmers for many generations.

I followed Jena Ben, a 56 year old Agariya Muslim salt worker to get a glimpse of her life working in these salt pans. Jena Ben has worked in this salt pan her entire living memory. This is her only means of livelihood and her entire family is engaged in salt farming.

Glimpse into the life of 56 year old Jena Ben- a salt worker in the Rann of kutch salt pan

She along with her family including four grandchildren had moved into this salt pan in October of last year.

She says that they moved when the water started to recede and the desert re-appeared. They built a shack around this area to live in. This shack was her home for seven months starting October. They also started digging wells at the same time to pump out saline water.

Children playing in the salt pan fields

After the natural evaporation process of the water , the salt fields become full of white salt crystals. This happens around December.

A salt crystal

The harvest season began slightly late in December last year. This is the time when the fields are covered with their first layer of silvery white- the raw salt.

Jena Ben along with many other salt workers move in carrying rakes and start scraping the salt making piles of raw salt around the pan. I was amazed to see that mostly women were working in these salt pans. I photographed the women during their work hour.

Jena Ben says that things have changed over the years. This area has seen phenomenal development, and Gujarat is a power surplus state . The power lines pass through the field and most of the heavy work is now done through industrial equipment. Gupta Ji is a crane driver who hails from Agra. He says that during his working hours in the salt pan he does not step out of his vehicle and avoids any exposure to smoldering heat and excessive salt.

Most of heavy work is now carried on by industrial equipments

Jena ben covers herself in just a cotton saree and no special gear to set out in scorching unrelenting heat

But not much has changed for Jena Ben . I meet her early in the morning when she is ready to set out in the scorching December heat to earn her daily wages. She leaves very early to escape the most ruthless hours of the sun.

The area can be extremely hot and unforgiving . Temperatures run as high as 45 degrees and fluctuate to a low of 4 degrees at night. However with sunlight reflecting through the white salt crystals it feels much hotter. The light is almost blinding and difficult to take through naked eye.

Salt pan worker- Jena Ben

Yet she drapes a simple and thin cotton saree wrapping it around the head, that provides minimal protection. She has no supporting gear of shoes, glasses, sun shield to save against the unrelenting sun. She works in these pans for 8 -10 hours everyday.

She walks along these pans pans , bare feet. Consistent exposure to high amount of salt has deformed her feet . I can see multiple lesions and she looks much older for her age .

Jena Ben has worked in these field for more than 40 years. Her feet are deformed and she walks along the high salt area bare foot every day

A day before Eid , I walk along with her in the salt pans conversing with her and observing her work. She is leaving for her home in the evening which is now in a village nearby. The monsoon is setting in and the desert will be lost to the sea very soon. I am blinded by the sunlight reflecting through the white salt and taking pictures in such high exposure is difficult.

Yet here she is , the only worker in this salt pan today.

All to just earn a little extra wage. Agariyas are poor but Jena Ben says that today's wages are towards the Eid gift for her grandchildren.

As told by Navtej Singh

#SaltpansofIndia #lifeofsaltworkers #Saltpans #salt #agarias

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