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Mainstream, VOL 61 No 21, May 20, 2023

Psychological Distress among Salt Pan Workers of Marakkanam | Supriya Bedi

Saturday 20 May 2023


by Supriya Bedi *

Some ninety years ago, a frail man with a walking stick made an impact on the freedom movement of 340 million people by showing them how to defy laws. Mahatma Gandhi’s Salt March, also known as the Salt Satyagraha, Dandi March and the Dandi Satyagraha, was an act of nonviolent civil disobedience in colonial India.The twenty-four day march lasted from 12 March to 5 April 1930 as a direct action campaign of tax resistance and nonviolent protest against the British salt monopoly. Gandhi started this march with 78 of his trusted volunteers and the march spanned 387 kilometres (240 mi), from Sabarmati Ashram to Dandi. Growing numbers of Indians joined them along the way. When Gandhi broke the British Raj salt laws at 8:30 am on 6 April 1930, it sparked large scale acts of civil disobedience against the salt laws by millions of Indians. The protest continued for a, but the colonial masters were reluctant to give concessions until the negotiations reached the Round Table Conference. 60,000 Indians were jailed during this agitation.

Salt sustains all life on earth — that of humans, animals, plants. Centuries ago, Roman soldiers were paid their salary in salt. Despite this impressive history and its tremendous everyday utility, ‘common salt’ is usually taken for granted. And salt workers — those who extract this substance from the seas, lakes or the earth — continue to suffer neglect, even in independent India. The salt pans lie in coastal and desert areas under a pitiless scorching sun. Some 150,000 salt workers in India and their families (perhaps half a million people in all) live for eight months a year in this harsh environment that’s often devoid of basic amenities such as drinking water, schools, hospitals or markets. They do the toughest of manual jobs, risking blindness, blood pressure, skin lesions, knee injury, back pain and exhaustion, and epidemics such as malaria. Most salt worker children are school dropouts, and are vulnerable to chronic cough and tuberculosis.

WHAT MAHATMA GANDHI did in 1930 was to draw the attention of the government and the common man to this sector and its exploited workforce. On the basis of analysis of primary survey of 60 salt pan workers data, which was collected based on stratified random sampling from Marakkanam block of Tamil Nadu, the determinants of psychological distress among the workers at this salt pan have been estimated. This study shows that the main cause of psychological distress among salt pan workers is related to their excessive monthly debt repayment obligations.

Marakkanam is one of the seven salt production centres in Tamil Nadu accounting for 18.1% share in employment and 3.2% in units of the total salt producing units in the State (derived from Yadava et al., 2006). A primary survey of 60 salt pan workers was undertaken from 500 salt pan workers residing in five villages located close to the salt pans in Marakkanam area. Majority of these salt pan workers are treated as bonded labour, irrespective of the size of the unit. They do not have the option to leave their jobs as they are indebted to the labour contractors who engage them and extend them loans, whenever they need. Over periods of time, the loans mount. Though the monthly wage for a salt worker is high, when compared to other unskilled workers’ wages in other industries, when averaged for the entire year, it turns out to be low because in the four months of off-season they have no work and have to stretch their resources over this period of annual joblessness.

Because of the seasonal nature of the salt pan industry and limited alternative opportunities, most workers have to borrow money during the off-season. The focus of this study is on the impact of socio-economic conditions on the psychological distress among these salt workers in Marakkanam. The integrated questionnaire for the sample survey was used to cover socio-economic aspects of the salt pan workers along with the SRQ-20 questions. In order to test the implications of socio-economic variables on the psychological distress among salt pan workers, the logistic model has been applied.

The individuals under clinically significant levels of distress — as determined on the basis of threshold level of an aggregate score of ≥ 8 on WHO standardised SRQ-20 questionnaire — were identified. They were then summed-up by applying weights. Very few workers have a low aggregate score on SRQ-20 in the analysis. Only 23.3% of the workers were found to be equanimous (less distressed compared to the average score).

Most of the respondents of this survey said they felt tense, nervous and worried, their daily work suffered, they had bad sleep, felt unhappy and were easily tired and they often cry. The percentage of psychological distress was found to be more among females compared to males. One surprising outcome of the study was that backward social classes were found to be less psychologically distressed than the Scheduled Caste and general social classes. This may be because traditionally, the backward classes have been involved in salt pan work and hence are comparatively more skilled, when compared to the other communities (Yadava et al., 2006), who take up this kind of work due to lack of other kinds of job alternatives.

Majority of salt pan workers, i.e. 52 out of 60 were found to have borrowed for one or the other reasons. Out of 52, 16 did not specify the reasons for borrowing. The remaining 36 said, they had borrowed in order to prepare the salt pan, to construct houses, for a child’s education or to buy gold and because of loss of work during the two years of the Covid pandemic. In some of the cases, more than one such factor was important.

Figure 1: Number of Salt Workers had taken loans for various reasons

Source: Derived by the author from sample survey of 60 workers from 5 villages of Marakkanam block, Tamil Nadu.

On the basis of the logit model on the data of 60 salt pan workers surveyed, the important variables found to be impacting psychological distress are gender, social class, and monthly debt repayment obligation of workers. The workers having less psychological distress are the ones having lower debt repayment obligation, estimated at average around Rs 2,790 per month. Those facing distress on an average have debt repayment obligation of Rs 5,513. A fourth variable — i.e. number of years the worker has worked in salt pans — was found to be also important but is not statically significant.

From this analysis, it has emerged that the main cause of psychological distress among salt pan workers are related to constraints these workers face because of their socio-economic conditions, such as excessive monthly debt repayment obligations. The poor working conditions, such as lack of basic amenities at the salt pan sites, are very tough to bear but majority of the workers are able to withstand such hardships. Thus, the institutional support for creating alternative livelihood opportunities to the salt pan workers/groups can go a long way in improving their psychological and economic conditions, especially if it is also accompanied by improvements in basic amenities at the salt pan sites. The basic amenities include protective equipment, clean drinking water and health services to the salt pan workers. These, the state and the private sector, both fail to provide to the salt pan workers, a hundred years after Gandhi’s clarion call to provide relief to the salt harvesting sector.

Keywords: SRQ-20, Psychological Distress, Salt Pan, Logistic Model, Socio-economic, maximum likelihood.

* (Author: Supriya Bedi: Christ University, Bangalore, India | Email: supriya.bedi[at]


This study has come out of my master’s dissertation. I am grateful for the guidance and support which I received from Prof Suresh Sharma, Panjab University, Chandigarh, regarding the statistical tools.
I also wish to thank my mentor Dr Reena Merin Cherian, Assistant Professor, Christ University, Bangalore.
I am also grateful to Reshma Reddy, Arulaarason, Noordin, Kaaviya Velusaamy, Shibbi, Shreenath and Ken for their support during the survey.


Yadava Y S et al. Socio-Economic Status of Workers in the Salt Industry in India: A Report. Bay of Bengal Programme, Inter-Governmental Organisation. Chennai. Online resource from the BOBP-IGO report on Socio-Economic Status of Workers in the Salt Industry by Mr S R Madhu

[Edited by Papri Sri Raman]

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