Reading Time : 6min
Octogenarian Govind Usme Bhobhe, bears a striking resemblance to the mythical Phoenix as he stands alone in the middle, scanning his vast salt pans spread over more than 1 Lakh acres, in a small village on the banks of an estuary of River Mandovi. Much like the Phoenix, Mr.Bhobhe, one of the last few remaining Mittkaars (salt-makers), is standing tall and proud, amidst the ruins of what was once a vital and flourishing traditional industry of Goa.
The state of Goa in Southwest India, is located in a coastal belt known as Konkan. Bound by Maharastra on the north and Karnataka on the east and south and the Arabian Sea on the west, it experiences tropical climates for most part of the year, interrupted by a long monsoon period between June-October. Naturally blessed with multiple rivers that flow in from the east and meander along vast hinterlands, picturesque fields and villages before ultimately merging into the Arabian Sea, Goa has one of the richest riverine systems in the country. This riverine system, along with the tropical climatic conditions and the easy access to sea water is what makes Goa one of the most naturally conducive states for production of salt in its most natural form – a crystalline mineral that is known as rock salt or halite.
Not surprisingly then, salt production in Goa is a more than 1500 years old industry, practised by various communities like the Mitthgaudas, Agris, Gauddos to name a few. Historically, these communities were exclusively engaged in the traditional occupation of salt making and belonged to villages primarily from four talukas (districts), that were situated on the banks or estuaries of the 6 major rivers of Goa. The salt that was harvested in the state was widely believed to be of superior quality, known for its distinct flavour and the uses and benefits of this organic, natural product were manifold. As a result of which, not only was this salt highly sought after in the domestic markets, but was also one of the major export commodities and continued to be so, almost into the late1950s.
The structure and the process of salt making :
The Salt pans – the Mittache Agor or Mitt gars (Mitt being Salt in Konkani) – are reclaimed Khazan lands that are used for various agricultural and piscicultural purposes. Inevitably these Khazan lands, which are basically waterlogged saline floodplains along Goa’s multiple estuaries, are surrounded by thick mangrove forestation and every salt pan is situated directly on the banks of these estuaries overlooking beautiful, lush mangroves.
A salt pan broadly consists of three distinct kind of pans.
1) The Reservoir pan
2) The secondary storage reservoir or evaporator pan and
3) The crystalliser pan.
All of these square or rectangular shaped pans are individually enclosed by bunds on all sides, that have been hand sculpted by the workforce and connected to each other by way of slight gaps or canals in the ridges. Raw material in the form of saline water from the nearest estuary, is released into the first reservoir pan, which is usually the biggest and deepest, in a highly controlled manner through sluice gates. This first step is a vital step as it is imperative that both the quantity of water and the degree of salinity introduced into this first pan is just the right amount to begin with. Once the water in the reservoir pan has reached a desired level of salinity through natural evaporation, it is released into the much shallower, second reservoir / evaporator pan, where the water continues to further evaporate, increasing salinity before finally being released into the crystalliser pans.
By the time the water has reached the crystalliser pans, production of salt starts taking place. The more humid and hot the weather gets – the higher the production of salt. The salt crystals that are formed on the surface are collected with the help of a long wooden rake known as ‘foley’ – which is a rectangular block of wood attached to a bamboo stick. The collected salt is then piled in heaps on the ridges of the bunds and left to dry overnight. By the next morning this fresh, highly organic and natural salt is ready for consumption and sale.
The Process :
The entire process of salt production is essentially done in two phases : The Preparatory phase and the harvesting phase.
Phase I : The preparation (Oct – Jan) : Once the monsoons have ended, the salt production enters into it’s ground zero phase. During this phase the salt pans, which by now are completely submersed in rainwater, are first emptied and drained out with the help of motor pumps. Once the fields are bone dry, the preparation of the salt pan beds commences with the help of workers who smash the mud with water with their feet and spend time rebuilding the bunds and ridges that get damaged in the monsoons.
This process of levelling and preparing the salt pan beds is a very crucial phase for optimal salt production. An initial test harvest is usually done during this period, where small quantities of salt are produced – a process that helps in further settling the salt-pan beds and getting them ready for the main harvest season.
Phase II – The Harvest (Summer : Feb – May ) : The advent of summer, signals the beginning of the harvesting phase. Starting in February and all through the peak summer, literally till the first day of monsoons – the production of salt is virtually unstoppable.
Current scenario :
Given this rich history and detailed storyline involved in the manufacturing of this basic, all-important commodity in Indian kitchens everywhere, one would think that this is an industry that ought to have survived the onslaught of modernisation and progress. Unfortunately, nothing more could be further from the truth. Beyond a shadow of doubt, this once thriving traditional industry is on the verge of extinction and has almost come to a grinding halt.
A direct testimony to this fact is the catastrophic dip in the actual number of salt pans that are in existence today in Goa – a mere 20 as compared to the 400+ salt pans, spread across the four talukas. The rest of the salt pans have either been simply abandoned by the Mittkaars and their respective communidades (a unique form of land association developed in Goa, where land-ownership was collectively held by villagers) or even worse, fallen prey to the real estate vultures. Predictably, the real estate biggies wasted absolutely no time in swooping down to claim these attractive pieces of prime property with uninterrupted views of the rivers and mangroves of Goa.
Finding and retaining a reliable work force to last through the entire season of a salt harvest, is another major factor that is contributing to the near extinction of these salt pans. Relentlessly hard, physical labour is required from a salt pan worker who is involved not only in the maintenance of the pans and the accompanying bunds, but is also required to constantly stir the water surfaces to enable the process of crystallisation and finally collect the salts. The peak activity period for a sat pan worker is roughly between 1130am to 530 pm – when the sun is at the highest position. With temperatures in summer soaring to over 40°C on an average, it is not a job for the faint-hearted and with no foreseeable benefits nor support extended from the Government, a worker simply feels no compulsion to stay and put in this strenuous work.
A final death knell came in the form of aggressive marketing from multinational Iodised-salts who built a debilitating campaign around the dangers of consuming non-iodised salt. A firm spotlight was shone on the health hazards, presumably from consuming this organic, non-iodised salt and ranged from brain damage to goiter (thyroid gland) to slowed metabolism.The humble and unpretentious mittkaar never stood a chance against this onslaught or the deep pockets of these giants. With most consumers of the traditional rock salt buying into the fear of IDD ( iodine disorder deficiency), the demand started to steadily decline and soon hit rock bottom – no pun intended. The reality is that the consumer today, prefers to simply hop over to the nearest supermarket and buy a small,1kg branded pack, which is easier to store as well in apartments.
The fact that there is complete apathy from the local government towards helping this age old traditional occupation – either by providing much needed subsidies for the high-maintenance costs of running a salt pan or by way of help with the marketing/ promotion of the product – does not bode well for this dying industry. To make matters worse, there seems to be no formal association or a singular body of authority for this occupation, that is willing to take ownership and ensure basic hygiene factors. The scant few remaining salt pans that are still operational today are doing so because of the perseverance and the single-minded determination of the individual mittkaar.
Well aware of the harsh realities he is faced with, he nevertheless goes about the business of producing salt for the domestic markets, without skipping a beat. His attention to detail and his ability to retain a loyal workforce through a slew of benefits he has devised for them, have resulted in salt pans that are highly prosperous and produce an approximate 5000 bags (75kg each) of salt year on year.
However, with all his children choosing to work in the corporate sector and in a world that is far removed from the rigours of a mittkaar, the future seems to be bleak for his salt pans as well, prosperous or not. In fact the only time the usually indomitable Mr.Bhobe, who can speak with endless passion and pride on the subject of salt pans becomes solemn is, when questioned about the fate of the salt pans that he has personally nurtured painstakingly, for over 5 decades.
The light in his eyes dims a bit and he simply shrugs in a heartbreaking manner.