In India's salt-producing heartland, thousands of families -- including children as young as 10 -- toil in the desert using a harvesting technique unchanged in centuries.
India is the world's third-biggest producer of salt after China and the US, government figures show, and about 70 percent of the 19-20 million tonnes it produces annually comes from the western state of Gujarat.In Little Rann of Kutch, a barren brown desert and local centre of inland salt production, an estimated 200,000 people work barefoot in extreme hardship, exposed to a relentless sun and a host of occupational dangers.
People like Pola Degama and his wife have been raking salt in Gujarat?s desert since they were children, digging wells to draw the briny groundwater to the surface then relying on evaporation to leave the white crystals.
Several square salt pans lie next to the shack where his family of six lives.
"Because we work in the saltpans, our feet become septic and they absorb the salt. Nobody lives more than 50 or 60 years," he told AFP.
Even after death, he says, saltpan workers suffer an ignoble fate: their hands and feet are difficult to burn during cremation because of the salt content.
Wages are low and offer few chances for the children of saltpan workers to escape a cycle of poverty and poor health.
Most make the annual trip to Little Rann of Kutch every October to June from villages on the edge of the desert, where they spend the monsoon season.
"What will happen? My situation is the same as my old man?s. And my kids? will remain the same as mine," Degama said.
Salt from Gujarat has a special place in Indian history, having played a crucial role in the country's transition from British colony to independent nation in 1947.
Independence leader Mahatma Gandhi used a highly unpopular British monopoly on the production of salt to rally support for his movement.
He led a march to Dandi on the Gujarat coast in 1930 and produced salt by boiling muddy seawater, encouraging others to do the same and sparking widespread civil disobedience.
But decades later, life remains harsh for the salt miners.
Local traders buy low-quality crystals for as little as 50 US cents for 100 kilograms (220 pounds). Higher quality produce can sell for four to six US dollars for the same weight.
"We produce the most important food ingredient, but we are never given importance. Poverty is our fate," complained fellow saltpan worker Daya Ranto, a 48-year-old father of three.
Navigation is so difficult here in the featureless flatland that local people have devised a communication system using shards of mirror to reflect light messages to each other.
Overland travel is mainly by foot or on modified single-cylinder Royal Enfield motorbikes that zip across sandy tracks in the cracked earth.
"We reflect the mirror to signal each other whenever we get lost here," says Ranto. "Here, asking for directions is a futile exercise as there are no sign boards or any landmark to guide," he added.
Sukh Dev, a human rights activist who runs 17 primary schools for children in the desert, says a majority of the workers employed in the industry are unskilled and suffer from serious work-related health problems.
"It is painful to see how people toil and die. Children start working at a young age. The salt and the sun inflict immense damage on their health," he said.
A study conducted by The National Institute of Occupational Hazards in 2000 found that eye problems and blindness were caused by the intense reflection of the sun from the water surface.
Exposure to salt also causes skin lesions among the workers.
The government provides inexpensive rubber boots and gloves to the salt workers, but they wear out quickly and are seldom replaced.
In the state capital Ahmedabad, Deputy Salt Commissioner D.L. Meena says the authorities do provide help to the labourers.
"Gujarat and the Indian government are doing a lot to benefit them. They have set up a medical van, and they receive eyeglasses and gloves."
The state also provides fresh water to the workers once a week, but there are few medical facilities and no government-run schools or shops for fresh vegetables, meat or dairy products
"Potato and roti (thin wheat bread) is all we eat for eight months. Children never get to drink milk," says Saku Degama, Pola Degama's wife and mother of their four children.
Social activist Ambhu Patel has written three books on the lives of salt workers, many of whom say they would gladly take other work but have no choice but to toil on in the desert simply to survive.
Legally, they live in limbo. The area is a wildlife sanctuary, home to the world's last population of Indian wild ass, a type of donkey, making them technically encroachers.
Patel says harvesting salt has been a curse for generations.
"There is a saying here that if you're a saltpan worker, you have three ways to die: first gangrene, second TB (tuberculosis) or third blindness. In every house, people die this way."