Thursday, 11 June 2015

Money in the Ground

Salt production in Moheshkhali Island accounts for more than half of domestic consumption.

In the fields at Tajiakata of Moheshkhali’s Kutubjom Union they’re lifting water, bucket by bucket. The criss-cross channels are hand dug to entice a little of the sea inland. Seawater is being lifted, litre by litre, to the first of four shallow tanks carved in the ground.

Salt is one of the main industries of Moheshkhali Island.

Even in the morning the sun is fire, but then they’re counting on evaporation. When labourers sweat, sweat is salty.

It’s a semi-lunar landscape, yellow and brown, treeless and arid. It’s a shallow water-trough landscape of salt heaps. Leaving his nearby home at some minutes before 7 a.m., Abdus Salam, 34, will soon be there. For eighteen years he’s been harvesting salt.

“Water collection is the most difficult task,” he says.

For Salam, salt is a livelihood; but salt is also much more.

Salinity in the human, salinity in the sea: for centuries poets and evolutionists have contemplated a distant ancestral link to the earliest life forms that from the primordial soup clambered ashore.

Labourers Mahamadul Karim and Shefatul Islam lift seawater by bucket to begin the salt making process.

More than food seasoning, more than food preserver, sodium chloride is life’s essence: where we came from and where we are. There can be no life without salt. Should we cry, we shed salty tears.

Evaporation ponds. Salt is simple brilliance.

In South Asia there’s independence too in the white sea-spice. On 12 March 1930 Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi began his famous Salt Satyagraha, a march from near Ahmedabad to the Gujarati seaside village of Dandi. At 6:30 a.m. on 6 April Gandhi collected salt by the shore.

Protesting the British salt monopoly brought worldwide attention to the non-violent independence movement and many in India took confidence from Gandhi’s symbolic act. Many followed his example and were arrested. Salt is a harbinger of coming freedom.

The afternoon sun illuminates the salt fields.
Salt taxes also encouraged the French Revolution and paid for Columbus to sail to the New World. At a time when half of China’s revenue came from salt, a Great Wall was made. At the centre of human civilisation you’ll find salt.

Aztec mythology meanwhile includes Huixtocihuatl, goddess of fertility who presided over salt and saltwater. In Hinduism auspicious salt is used in housewarmings and weddings. Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) in a hadith recorded in Sunan Ibn Majah reportedly said, “Salt is the master of your food. God sent down four blessings from the sky: fire, water, iron and salt.”

Religion, civilisation, human life: salt has shaped history.

But Salam’s talk is not of this. He explains that older water will drain through adjoining, ever shallower troughs. He knows evaporation will take to its task. In the final polythene-lined tank after about a week, salt crystals awaiting collection shall sparkle, says he. Salt is brilliance in its simplicity.

The lunar landscape of the salt fields.

He predicts merchants will buy direct from his field. He understands that if he needs to store salt when the monsoon arrives he can bury it, wrapped in polythene, underground. “There’s money in the ground,” say the people of Moheshkhali.

More than half of Moheshkhali's population participates in salt.
When labourers sweat, their sweat is salty.

Salt is also a budget. From 5 kanies of land leased for upwards of 40,000 taka Salam calculates that with two labourers employed he can produce 300 maunds of salt per kanie during the January to April season. He’ll need 100 pounds of polythene for one kanie at 75 taka per pound.

There are contingencies to account for: a falling price caused by transport disruption and late winter fogs that bringing moisture to undo the sun’s work in salt’s disheartening dissolution.

Moheshkhali produces the largest portion of salt to meet domestic demand. Salt farming of about 19,000 acres enlists some degree of participation from most of the island’s 3-lac population.

Abdus Salam, 34, has been working in the salt fields for 18 years.

Yet ironically the Bay of Bengal is best suited for salt. While averaging 3.5% salinity, the world’s seas are not equally saline.

Salt crystals ready for collection.

Of open seas, the Red Sea is considered the saltiest at 4%, due to a lack of rain and river inflow, and because of its narrow connection to the less saline Indian Ocean. Enclosed water bodies can be much saltier still, like the Dead Sea with 34.2% salinity. 

The Yellow, Baltic and Black seas by contrast, like the Bay of Bengal, hold below-average salt content.

Afternoon at Tajiakata salt fields.
Salam can’t consider seawater but he does consider land. Sandy soils are not much good, where absorption is high. Suitable land produces salt more quickly, of higher quality.

As the word ‘salary’ shares its Latin root with salt: either money to buy salt or payment in salt, it’s easy to conclude that Salam has it right… Salt means food on a table and a family fed.

Should we cry, tears are salty.

The alien landscape of Shaplapur in northern Moheshkhali.

This article is published in The Daily Star, here: Moheshkhali's Money in the Ground

Salt. The stuff of life.

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