My Name is Salt: a haunting story about the extraction of salt

How 40,000 people live in an arid land to extract the salt the rest of us take for granted

Catch Team @catchnews

You can't get much more basic than salt.

It's fundamental to our food, to our language, even to our history.

We speak of flavour in terms of salt. And of loyalty and betrayal. We don't pass it hand to hand for fear of a fight. We throw it over our shoulder to ward off bad luck.

Salt is so central, it became a symbol of sovereignty in the Indian independence movement.

Yet like all fundamental things, we often don't think about where it comes from, how it's made.

India is the world's third largest producer of salt. More than 70 per cent of what we produce comes from Gujarat, the majority from the Little Rann of Kutch. Here, for eight months each year, thousands of migrant families perform the gruelling labour of salt extraction.

Farida Pacha's film, My Name Is Salt, is a haunting document of what it takes to produce one of our most basic needs. The film tracks a family of salt farmers as they spend eight months in the harsh landscape of Gujarat's Little Rann of Kutch, knee-deep in the brine of vast salt fields, which, come monsoon, will disappear into the sea.

Below, the filmmaker writes about the film:

Year after year, for an endless eight months, thousands of families move to a desert in India to extract salt from the burning earth. Every monsoon, their salt fields are washed away, as the desert turns into sea. And still they return, striving to make the whitest salt in the world.

The desert extends endlessly - flat, grey, relentless. There is not a tree or blade of grass or rock. But there is one thing in abundance: salt. Salt is everywhere, lying just beneath the cracked, baked surface of the earth.

This is the Little Rann of Kutch, 5,000 sq km of saline desert. And for eight months of the year, the salt people live here, laboriously extracting salt from this desolate landscape. They migrate from their villages, 40,000 of them, to live on this bleak land without water, electricity or provisions. They have been doing this for generations.

Arriving just after the monsoon, Sanabhai and his family will live here from September until April. Their nearest neighbour is a kilometre away. They communicate by flashing mirrors in the sunlight. Sanabhai's wife Devuben walks across the bare, trackless desert to chop firewood. They buy the family's water supply from a private tanker that comes once a week.

Sanabhai has taken a large loan from the salt merchant in town as an advance on his salt harvest. He needs money to dig a well to reach the saline water 70 feet below ground, and to buy the diesel for the pump which draws the brine into the salt pans. Over the next few months, the only sound to break the silence of the desert is the mechanical drone of the pump's engine.

It takes eight months for the brine to crystallise into salt. Knee-deep in the brine pond, under the blinding glare of the sun, Sanabhai and his family trample the ground to prevent the salt from congealing. Once the brine has evaporated enough to allow the salt to be handled, they gather it with heavy wooden rakes until large crystals have formed.

Their labour is rhythmic, a dance that mirrors the dance of the mirages on the burning horizon. The white crystals are as sharp as glass. Only two of them have rubber boots. Several times in a day, Sanabhai inspects the quality of the salt crystals and keeps a close watch on the level of water in the salt pans.

Two of Sanabhai's children - a boy and a girl aged 11 and 8 - go to a school recently opened by an NGO. Every day at 11, after their morning's work at the salt pans, they cycle off to school - just another hut in the vast emptiness of the desert, but with one difference: the children have planted paper flowers around it.

In April, the salt merchant sends his man to inspect the salt. No good, he says: the crystals are small, not white enough. He cuts the price agreed upon with Sanabhai at the beginning of the season. Sanabhai is downcast, but he shrugs his shoulders: what can you do? The next salt season will certainly be better.

Meanwhile, somewhere at the edge of the desert, mountains of salt lie next to the railway tracks waiting to be transported to the city. The season is over and the monsoon is on its way: the heavy rains will soon wash the family's salt fields away. The desert itself will not remain a desert any more, but will turn into a sea. And the only way one can cross it is by boat.

Catch Team

Catch Team @catchnews