In Another World: Salt Production in the Little Rann of Kutch

After driving for about 10 minutes over dusty terrain, our car pulled to a stop in front of a small solar array.

“When visiting the Rann, always take a guide with you,” my escort for the day, Mr. Anurag Bhatnagar says, “it’s very easy to lose your way. I’ve come across skeletons in this desert.”

Suitably chastened, I step out of the car into the blazing sun. Parched doesn’t begin to describe the ground. The thick mud is deeply cracked dry from the sun. Despite the dry heat, the strong salty breeze reminds me of a trip to the beach. We’ve reached the salt pans.

I’m here — in Gujarat, India — on a reconnaissance mission, to scope out the solar water pumping systems used in this barren terrain. A few months from now, I will return with a team from CITE to undertake a socio-technical analysis of the systems used for salt production. This evaluation will include installation of sensors to test the technical performance of the pumps, as well as interviews with salt workers, pump manufacturers, and facilitators like Mr. Bhatnagar. The data collected and subsequent analysis will ultimately coalesce into a report and scorecard that will help solar pump users find the system that fits their needs. For now, my job is to assess the feasibility of data collection. At the moment, my biggest concern is sunstroke.

During the months from October to May, 40,000 farmers enter the Rann to practice an age-old industry, the production of salt. They use the same wells each year, hand dug down to 7m and reinforced with bamboo to prevent cave ins, and then bored out the rest of the way down. Every few hundred meters, there is another well, another pump, and a surprising number of solar arrays powering them. At the end of the season in May, the wells are filled in with mud and marked, the pumps and arrays are carried away, and because they are so heavy the diesel gen sets are buried beneath the ground.

These workers live in meager accommodations but deprivation has begotten a unique form of ingenuity. With the nearest shops far out of reach, they have learned to repair their pumps and gen sets themselves and tinker with the solar systems in complex ways to ensure the highest levels of efficiency.

Mr. Bhatnagar points out a small shrine about three meters tall. “That temple there is completely submerged during monsoon. The Rann has two ecosystems: desert and wetland.” Salt production lasts through May, but before the rains come each year, these farmers pack up their equipment, including the pumps and solar arrays and head back to their villages. The rains and ingress from the sea cover the Rann in a large lake that attracts birds and wildlife on their migratory paths. In August the rains stop, and by October the ground has dried enough for the farmers to haul out their equipment and begin the season for salt.

Solar pumps are particularly well suited to the Rann and the production of salt. During salt production, the area gets very high levels of insolation and the pumps are able to run for 8 or 9 hours per day on solar power. If the farmer requires further pumping, the electric pumps can be switched to diesel gen sets to run after the sun has gone down.

The wells reach water just three or four meters below the surface and pull up the brine for salt production, and as the water level decreases, the surface pumps are lowered deeper into the well. At the end of the season, the brine retreats to 15m below the surface. The brine is pumped into flat rectangular pools for evaporation, eventually into smaller pools where the salinity reaches upwards of 27% and the crystalization process starts. The salt pan workers rake the salt to develop smaller crystals (which fetch a higher price) and pile it up onto the sides of the pans to be collected by the trader. The entire process takes about 15 days.

Salt takes on a particularly charged aura in India. In an attempt to control the country and raise revenue when India was under colonial control, Britain refused to allow India to produce its own salt from seawater as was the traditional practice and enforced a monopoly of British salt. In open defiance of the law, Mohandas Gandhi started a march from Ahmedabad to coastal Dandi to produce salt. This civil disobedience and nonviolent protest spread quickly through the rest of India and galvanized the Indian independence movement.

The trading companies set the price for salt at the beginning of the year. Though prices were Rs 190 per ton last year, this year it is only Rs. 160 per ton. Mr. Bhatnagar tells me that the traders originally quoted as low as 150, but the farmers refused to produce. Few of us, even of those without much disposable income, think much about the price of salt. A 1kg bag costs about Rs. 17 (about $0.25) at the store, but of that, the farmer only receives 60 paesa (less than $0.01).  The rest of the margin is divided between traders and processors. The salt producers do not have a lobby like those in the sugar industry, so they have not yet been able to set a minimum support price, which would give them a larger share of the margin on salt.

Mr. Bhatnagar is the CEO of Grassroots Trading Network for Women (GTNFW), or Hariali — the Self Employed Women's Association (SEWA) program for sustainable energy. This program not only facilitates the promotion of solar pumps for the salt workers, but also has solar lantern and efficient cook stove programs. They first started installing the solar pumps four years ago, and today, 250 of the 286 solar pumps installed on the Rann were installed by SEWA.

Mr. Bhatnagar has taken a slow approach to ensure that the right technology is used and he has chosen the right partners. Because the salt farmers live on such small margins, he wants to ensure that the solar pumps are a sound investment and have minimal risk. Toward this end, he has partnered with a start up firm in Chennai called Zynergy, which has developed a polymer pump to address the problem of corrosion in traditional pumps made of iron or alloy. Zynergy has worked closely with SEWA in the development of appropriate systems and farmer training, and although they are ready to install 10,000 pumps next year, Mr. Bhatnagar prefers more measured progress to ensure that the systems operate correctly before massively scaling up.

SEWA will sell the systems directly to the farmers, taking about 10% upfront and the rest in installments during the season over a little more than 3 years. After that, the farmer need only pay for maintenance. This greatly reduces the cost of production for the farmer after that three year mark, putting more money in his pocket and improving the livelihood of himself and his family.

Not only this, during the off-season, when the systems are hauled back to the villages encircling the Rann, the panels and electronics can be used to light the farmer’s home and those of his neighbors.

“We see our role as bringing together all the necessary players,” Mr. Bhatnagar says, “but ultimately our goal is to improve the lives of the salt farmers.”

You can read more about this project on the Technology Exchange Lab's website.

Friday, March 25, 2016
Sara Lynn Pesek
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