A Desolation of Salt

We sped into a desolation on the back of an open jeep. Behind us a lurid sunrise, in front a perfectly flat desert with the wind whipping up a cloud of salt. I settled a surgical mask over my face to filter out the salt. It wasn’t good enough. You need a better filter in this part of the Rann of Kutch.

Salt is part of everyday life in this desert. As we pulled off the highway we passed the production area of a government-owned company called Hindustan Salts Limited. From a distance it looked like a typical chemical industry, fenced off for your own good, different production areas connected by conveyor belts.

What you see from the road is incongruous. Immense pyramids of impure salt, with earth-movers trundling along between them, cutting the heaps into smaller piles. Other machinery moves these piles into sheds and from there into purification plants. This is machinery you normally associate with quarrying. I wondered why the impure salt is first piled up into mountains which require excavation.

But incongruities begin to pile up as you move far into the desert. This was the last day of our time in the Rann of Kutch, and this area was much more inhospitable than anything I’d seen till now. But there were more people living here. The Swedish countryside is dotted with farmholds, each well-separated from the next by fields. The landscape here was a desolate version of that: make-shift houses, well-separated from each other. Around every house were shallow ponds separated by low berms. Each rectangular pond held briny water, to be evaporated by the sun for a harvest of salt.

Everything was make-shift. Each family start work here late in the year, and try to harvest the salt before the beginning of the monsoon. The monsoon floods the area, so that you have no choice but to move out. My two-week long troubled breathing after half a day here cannot be singular. People who spend half a year here must be paying a price in poor health. It is not a life that one would choose freely. I keep returning to a wonderful movie which introduced me to the story of the people here.

Further on I saw a smaller establishment. Perhaps the family is more poorly off, but they had a couple of thorn bushes near their house. A considerable walk away they had set up an array of solar cells. This was common. There is a lot of pumping of water as part of their normal work. The old oil-fired motors have been phased out for solar power. A small luxury comes with it. In the other household I noticed that the makeshift toilet, walled off in green and white plastic, had a makeshift overhead tank of water.

Geologically, the Rann of Kutch is a rift basin, originally formed during the break-up of Gondwanaland, about 180 million years ago, but active today since it forms part of the continental boundary region of the Indian plate. It was inundated during the geologically recent Pliocene epoch, about 3 million years ago, and periodically later, as the sea level rose and fell during the Quaternary glaciation events during which humans crossed the globe and settled across the world. I suppose most of the salt here are evaporation residues from these events. Non-renewable removal of these salts should be the least of our concerns, given that another rise in sea levels is anticipated.

Old myths and histories are full of stories of armies destroying enemy nations by sowing salt into the soil. That is the normal landscape here. I suppose that the process of extraction of salt is not totally efficient. As a result a surface layer of free salt always remains, making this region even more inhospitable by blowing in the wind.

A drain inspector’s report

saltpans

When you travel along Mumbai’s eastern artery, past Chembur and towards Thane, you see empty lands on the eastern flank of the city, broken occasionally into the regular grid-work of salt pans. This neglected part of the city hides some of its best bird-watching spots. One which has attracted much attention in the last few years is the Bhandup Pumping Station.

sludge

Few people used to know how the city disposes of its considerable volume of sewage. Now, most birders in the area know that this involves a network of aeration tanks which allow the material to be degraded by bacteria until it is deemed safe enough to be pumped into the sea. One of the places where this is done is the Bhandup station. A fantastic bonus (to misuse a phrase invented by Elisabeth Lloyd) is that the local enrichment of the sea water increases the population of marine species, so attracting water birds, and birders, to the location.

weed-holder

I’d been there with a bunch of very good birders a couple of years back. Today, alone in a taxi on the highway, on a whim I asked the driver to turn in to the pumping station. We found our way in. When the sounds of the highway faded to a distant roar, I stopped the taxi and got off. There was a narrow path through the grass towards the east. I told the driver that I was going to walk in, and he could either stay with the car, or come with me. He elected to walk with me.

grass

On our drive in we had seen many boards announcing that the area was a protected wetland. As soon as the engine was switched off, I could hear a variety of bird calls around me. I saw a flock of small birds descend on the path to pick at something. I took a couple of long shots: they turned out to be a mixed flock which disappeared into the tall grass as soon as I moved on to the path. I’m a terrible spotter; when I’m birding with The Family I’m totally at her command. Now I could barely spot anything apart from occasional small birds through the thick of the grass (you can see one between the stalks in the photo above; it was a little larger than a sparrow, rust on top and a blue or bluish grey below).

tree

I could hear the sound of water birds splashing around to my left. Mangroves obscured my view. Above me I could see various birds flying: egrets mostly, but also some swifts, various gulls and terns, a stork. The gap to the sky was small, along most of the path, so these were flashing glimpses. However, because we were also obscured by the trees, several of the birds flew very low overhead. I saw a small egret fly an arm’s length overhead. Away, to the right, I saw the electric blue of a kingfisher flash by. My companion was marvelling at how the place reminded him of his village. A family of common coots swam past. I saw a cormorant drying itself. My bird list did not grow much.

redventedbulbul

The light was wonderful. The few birds I managed to photograph looked spectacular in this light. I had to agree with the taxi driver, if you forgot that we were walking across a narrow causeway between two arms of a creek then the foliage looked like it could be a village well outside of town.

When I got home, The Family was preparing for a presentation she has to give tomorrow. She laughed at my small bird list, and agreed to come with me next week.

My pathetic bird list

Part of the reason the bird list is so small is that the tide was high. At low-tide you see many water birds picking at food in the exposed mud.

  1. Red-vented bulbul
  2. Oriental turtle dove
  3. Indian robin
  4. Magpie robin
  5. Little blue kingfisher
  6. Little egret
  7. Large egret
  8. Grey heron
  9. Indian pond heron
  10. Indian cormorant
  11. Common coot