The 2nd of October, a time to remember, and celebrate, the man that was Mahatma Gandhi, his monumental shaping of the nationalist movement, by trying to uphold in our own lives all that Bapu stood for, all that he fought for. While Daan Utsav and upholding Swachta hi Seva are the causes one is most likely to think of upon reading this, here I wish to talk about an aspect that is far more basic to our well-being: salt. Gandhiji organised one of his most symbolic acts of civil disobedience, the Dandi march, against the imposed salt monopoly of the British. The 1882 Salt Act gave the British a monopoly on the collection and manufacture of salt, limiting its handling to government salt depots and levying a salt tax.
71 years after having gained formal swaraj, what if the case is such that salt production was freed from the clutches of one set of hands only to be transferred to the restrictions and regulations of another? I present to you, the Curious Case of India’s Salt Commissioner Organisation.
“Salt” is a Central subject in the Indian Constitution, listed as item no 58 in the Union list of the 7th schedule. The only item of its kind in the list, it is special enough to warrant the existence of a dedicated office of the Salt Commissioner. Based in Jaipur, the Salt Commissioner has three regional offices with deputy and assistant commissioners. Along with support staff of over 800 workers, they constitute the Salt Department, under the Ministry of Commerce and Industry’s Department of Industrial Policy and Promotion (DIPP). The stated functions of the salt department include regulation and control of the manufacture, supply and distribution of salt by other agencies, leasing of central government land for salt manufacture and collection of ground rent, assignment fee etc, welfare schemes for salt workers, and maintenance of standards and improvement in quality of salt. The Salt Department is also the nodal agency for implementing the National Iodine Deficiency Disorders Control Program (NIDDCP), a program of the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare.
Until 2016, a major function of the department was to collect tax on salt under the Salt Cess Act, 1953. The levy of cess on salt manufacture yielded a revenue of only Rs 2.5 crore, an amount which reportedly did not cover even the salary bill of the organisation. The Act was quietly repealed following a recommendation made by the Exports Reforms Commission. These recommendations drew from the long overdue recognition that the Salt Department functions as an unnecessary layer of bureacracy, with no justification to carry out functions for which relevant nodal bodies already exist. For instance, the NIDDCP involves the running of 26 Quality Control laboratories. The report finds no justification for continuing this activity in the Salt Commissioner’s office, since the promotion of iodide salt is with the Department of Women and Child Welfare, and the technical and nutritional aspects of salt are under the Ministry of Family Health and Welfare’s public health division. Accordingly, one recommendation was to transfer the quality control labs along with the support staff to this division.
Another contentious point is the Salt Department’s ownership of almost 60,000 acres of salt pan lands, of which it leases 45,000 acres to manufacturers for production. According to a Times of India article, department officials have been accused of corruption and constant litigation for filing multiple “frivolous” cases against salt pan owners. These complaints state that officials allegedly misused the Public Premises Eviction Act against private owners who have been in possession of salt lands for decades. Private manufacturers account for 94 per cent of salt produced in the country, which means the public sector has minimal influence on its price and production. It was suggested that these lands be transferred to the concerned state governments, with relevant revenue department officials in the area handling administration without needing any additional staff for this purpose.
The revenue collected from the lease finances the Department’s function of providing welfare for over 2 lakh labourers engaged in the salt industry. Placing this welfare function under the Salt Commissioner is again unnecessary, since no labour law is enforced by the department, and especially since there already exists a relevant nodal body whose very purpose is to protect and safeguard the interests of workers in general and provide to them social security: the Ministry of Labour and Employment.
Recommendations were thus made to gradually restructure and trim down the Salt Department’s regulatory functions. The Centre, taking stock of the same, issued an official notification in October 2016, ordering that the Salt Department be closed in a phased manner. So far, however, only one phase of this order has been realised, that of abolishing the Salt Cess Act. The Salt Department has even published its annual report the year after this notification was issued.
India is self-sufficient in salt production, with over 291 lakh tonnes produced in 2016-17.
The very existence of the Salt Department, with its seemingly tiny but multiple layers of regulatory barriers, is symptomatic of an inefficient bureaucracy. Yes, state capacity is vital to the functioning of the nation, however, this is effectively achieved only when resources are directed to the right, needful sectors. Salt isn’t one of them.
The attempt to free salt production from the regulatory chokehold of our colonial masters is remembered as one of the most symbolic acts of dissent against the Raj, and a clarion call for ‘swatantra’; 88 years hence, isn’t it appalling that we still enable regulation of the same product, and retain the very institution that was used to oppress our economic freedom?