Bharti Shah lifted the pan brimming with salt and emptied it into a parked tractor. With every scoop-and-heave movement, her lean arms trembled from the effort, and yet she carried on industriously. As our eyes met, the young girl stopped and smiled. “Which country are you from?”
A child of saltpan workers in Mithapur, on the western tip of Gujarat, Bharti has never gone to school. She joined her parents in their occupation of collecting salt four years ago, when she was still 8. “My father says, ‘I am not going to keep you, if you don’t work’,” she said, without bitterness.
Every day, Bharti Shah and other salt workers reach the plant by 3 am and work till mid-day. As the sun climbs higher, its rays reflecting off the white of the sand, it’s difficult to keep eyes open. Continued exposure to salt burns their skin. These occupational hazards have given birth to a saying in Mithapur: if you are a saltpan worker, you either die of gangrene or tuberculosis or you go blind.
Even death doesn’t bring succour. Because of the high salt content, their hands and feet do not burn during cremation. Their legs are collected by relatives and buried separately in a grave with salt so that they can decompose naturally.
Most people in Mithapur haven’t been able to escape this fate for generations. The wages are low, even though their employers earn millions. The workers directed me to an old man who had worked in the saltpans for the past 40 years but never developed any ailments. The old man elicited ironic laughs among the workers – the average life span among them, they say, is 50-60 years.
Young Bharti Shah does not want this future for herself. She is waiting for the opportunity to live a healthy life, to get education and travel beyond the saltpans. Once she was done with work, she came to look at my camera. I handed it to her to take some pictures. “You have such spotless skin,” she said while fiddling with the DSLR, “I am getting darker day by the day working here.”
All images by Deepti Asthana.
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