When slush turned the white salt pans brown

TE Raja Simhan Vedaranyam | Updated on December 24, 2018 Published on December 24, 2018

Devastated Salt pans covered by layers of slush in Vedaranyam. N Subramananian, one of the farmers affected by Gaja cyclone   -  TE Raja Simhan

The town of Vedaranyam, in southern Tamil Nadu, juts into the Bay of Bengal and is known for two things — salt pans and the bird sanctury. Cyclone Gaja, which hit the area in mid-November played havoc with both its identities.

It brought salt production to a grinding halt after Gaja with 184 kmph winds buried nearly 3,500 acres of salt pans with one foot heigh slush.

“Over 10,000 families are facing livelihood crisis even as loss to the salt industry could be as much as ₹80-100 crore,” said A Vedaratnam, President, Vedaranyam Salt Manufacturers and Traders Association.

Over one lakh tonnes of salt stored for despatch was washed away.

Due to its unique location — Palk Strait in the South and Bay of Bengal in the East — it suffered a double blow. It witnessed back-to-back spell of the cyclone. “The first was on November 15 with 120 kmph speed and second one the next day with speed reaching 184 kmph for four hours,” he said.

From both sides, sea water with slush entered the salt pans upto eight kms from the shoreline. When the water receded, it left behind the slush in salt pans including bunds, brine pits, bore wells and roads.

“It is very sad to see white turn black and brown,’’ said Vedaratnam, referring to the change in the colour of white salt. The worst affected are small and medium size farmers with less 100 acres, he said.

Salt being in the Central List, the responsibility of clearing the slush rests on the Centre. Without removing the slush, salt production cannot be revived.

A Central team recently assessed the extent of damage, he said. Gujarat produces 94 per cent of India’s salt and major centres like Thoothukudi and Vedaranyam produce the rest.

Every year, nearly 9 lakh tonnes of salt is produced for about six months in Vedaranyam. Out of the 9 lakh tonnes, about 7 lakh is produced by 800 individual licensees and the balance is split between the Chennai-based Chemplast group and the Gujarat Heavy Chemicals Ltd, said Vedaratnam, who is the grandson of Sardar Vedarathinam Pillai, a famous salt satyagrahi.

N Subramanian, 70, a salt manufacturer, said that his with seven acres land is full of slush and there is no scope to produce salt till it is removed. It is a similar situation with the 30 acres of land taken on lease by his son.

Subramanian sought the help of PV Rajendran, a salt manufacturer and former Member of Parliament, in cleaning the slush that will require over ₹1 lakh per acre.

Revival of salt

Salt production can be revived only after the farmers receive compensation from the government.

“Clearing of slush should be done in war footing and compensation should be paid immediately so that the pans could be readied before the next production season,” he said.

As regards the bird sanctury, Gaja culled over a thousand birds — mostly flamingos — that had reached Vedaranyam as part of their annual migration.

Their caracas are strewn across the salt pans and the adjoining marsh lands.

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Published on December 24, 2018
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