On February 14, 2011, Rev. Peter Morales, President of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA), embarked on a two-week journey to India to visit with several partners of the Unitarian Universalist Holdeen India Program (UUHIP) and with leaders of the Unitarian Union of North East India (UUNEI).  This blogpost by Rev. Morales is part of the continuing coverage of the journey. In this update Rev. Morales reflects upon his visit with salt workers in Gujarat who the UU Holdeen India Program works with through the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA).

It isn’t as though I have not seen poverty before. I saw it growing up in San Antonio. I have seen it in American cities and rural poverty in the deep South, in Latin America, the Philippines, and elsewhere.

The flatlands surrounding the salt pan in Gujarat, India.Yet I was not prepared for the salt pan workers. Even the photos cannot do this justice. We drive across featureless dried mud for miles. Around us there is an endless expanse of perfectly flat, perfectly brown nothingness. I am wishing I had a GPS unit and had “dropped a pin” at the start, for I have no idea where we are or how we could possibly find our way back. We pass some wild asses along the way and wonder what they eat out here.

A salt worker raking brine.Finally we arrive at the camp. We get a tour of the well, the pump, and what look like rice paddies with white salt at the bottom of a few inches of brine. The salt workers camp out here for six to eight months. Entire families come. They walk out here, carrying what they will need. The season begins with women smoothing out the bottom of the salt paddies with their bare feet. We learn that their feet have absorbed so much salt that when they die and are cremated their feet don’t burn.

Rev. Peter Morales meets with salt pan workersOK. I was prepared to see some rough conditions. What really got to me was when we sat having tea and bread squatted on the tent floor. Ready for the big shock? Here it is: They love this! And they are not faking it. Their faces light up when they talk of finally marching out here, carrying all what they will need for the season. The children are happy (children can’t fake this).

For me this would be life in hell. Nothing green in sight (and I mean nothing) for miles. Living in a small tent in a desert. No electricity. Hard work all day. And they love it.

Salt crystals.They love it because here they are free. They set their own pace. They have no overseer. In the village they are Dalits, “untouchables.” They are dehumanized every day. I realize that I take so many freedoms for granted. These untouchables are happy to endure enormous hardship for a small taste of freedom.

Here, in the desert of Gujarat, freedom tastes like salt.

Rev. Morales is on a two-week journey across India to meet with human rights partners.

Salt workers chanting "We are one!"
View more photos from Rev. Morales's visit with the salt workers!
About the Author
Rev. Peter Morales


  1. Marilyn

    On reading this article I became curious about the term “Dalit” and looked it up in Wikipedia. I wonder why we continue to use the term when it is, apparently, considered derrogatory.

    I look forward to your response.

    “The word “Dalit” comes from the Sanskrit, and means “ground”, “suppressed”, “crushed”, or “broken to pieces”. It was first used by Jyotirao Phule in the nineteenth century, in the context of the oppression faced by the erstwhile “untouchable” castes of the twice-born Hindus.[6]

    According to Victor Premasagar, the term expresses their “weakness, poverty and humiliation at the hands of the upper castes in the Indian society.”[7]

    Mohandas Gandhi coined the word Harijan, translated roughly as “Children of God”, to identify the former Untouchables. The terms “Scheduled castes and scheduled tribes” (SC/ST) are the official terms used in Indian government documents to identify former “untouchables” and tribes. However, in 2008 the National Commission for Scheduled Castes, noticing that “Dalit” was used interchangeably with the official term “scheduled castes”, called the term “unconstitutional” and asked state governments to end its use. After the order, the Chhattisgarh government ended the official use of the word “Dalit”.[8]”

  2. international

    Thanks for your thoughtful question, Marilyn.

    “Dalit” is a term first coined by Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, one of the architects of the Indian constitution of 1950 and revered leader of the Dalit movement. It was taken up in the 1970s by the Dalit Panther Movement which organized to claim rights for “untouchables” and is now commonly used by rights activists.
    *Source: Human Rights Watch 2008: http://www.hrw.org/en/node/24485/section/4

    Whatever Wikipedia says, Dalits – and all in solidarity with them – call themselves Dalits, which means “Broken People.”

    Human Rights Watch’s book “Broken people: caste violence against India’s “untouchables,” by Smita Narula, was written of, by and for Dalits. If you’re interested in this subject, I suggest reading it online: http://www.hrw.org/en/node/24485/section/1
    It’s also available for purchase if you do a Google search for it.

    “Scheduled caste” is a term used legally in India. Some Gandhians (whom Dalits discredit) use Harijan and others use Outcast and/or Untouchable. However, using those words is akin to using turn-of-the-century derogatory terminology for someone who identifies as black/African American.

    Dalits named their foundation the “Dalit Foundation” and their institute the “Institute of Dalit Studies.” They also have a Dalit Solidarity Network, a Dalit Liberation Education Trust, a National Federation for Dalit Women, etc.

    Martin Macwan, founder of Navsarjan – a Dalit rights organization – shared his stance on the use of the term Dalit in this 2001 UU World article:

    “Mahatma Ghandi called them harijans, or ‘children of God.’ (That phrase is not used today, since harijans also means the offspring of maidservants to the gods, who were sold to the temple priests for sex — in other words, the children of whores.) Despite a constitution that gives legal equality to all Indians, the status of dalits has not changed.

    ‘Whatever word is used, they are still outcastes,’ Macwan says. ‘To us, dalit is a moral belief in the equality of all human beings. I was born dalit, or untouchable, but my life mission is to be a free person.'”

    *Source: http://www.uuworld.org/2001/03/feature1.html

    I hope some of this information has been helpful to you in understanding the use of the term Dalit. If you have further questions, please feel free to contact the International Resources Office at international [at] uua [dot] org.

    Nicole McConvery
    International Programs Associate

  3. Nikhil

    I don’t know whether to feel sick or amused.

    Mr. Morales, yes, this is “life in hell” even for them. It is hell for you because having nothing green in sight for miles, because living in a small tent in a desert without electricity and having to work hard all day is your view of hell and it isn’t in theirs.

    Do they “love it”? What romantic claptrap. They suffer it cheerfully. They do not let their hopelessness get in the way. They do not demand that the governments and well-meaning people do something for them. They don’t beg for alms, they don’t revolt, they don’t even show you their tears.

    Please for God’s sake, for Christ’s sake – and no, I am not taking their names in vain – do not glorify their “freedom” just because you are so confined in your own prison and cannot smile and laugh the way do, at least before you. You don’t get to set your own pace (though I don’t see why not), you seem to have an overseer (though God must be failing or He would pull you up for not feeling enraged by the dehumanization of fellow human beings you saw with your own eyes). Even the freedoms you ‘take for granted’ have corrupted you – you think they come because you have a fortune of birth.

    “These untouchables are happy to endure enormous hardship for a small taste of freedom”?? How wrong you are. And how heartless, blind, thoughtless.

    They could do with a home. Some water. Some lighting. Some schooling for their children. Ready treatment for maladies of all sorts.

    Or they could earn more money if they didn’t have to spend so much on diesel for pumping water. Or could afford a truck and the fuel to take their salt to the market or the processor (grinding, packing salt and shipping it on).

    Don’t worry; you don’t have to do any of that. Nobody else has seen it worthwhile doing much of that, and perhaps not they themselves because they barely earn enough to eat, sleep in those tents, drink some tea, and entertain well-meaning people like you who would literally turn them into photo opportunity, blogging opportunity.

    So would I, but I wouldn’t talk about them being happy and free. I would hang my head in the shame of Gujarat, the shame of India, the shame of humanity.

    Apologies for being offensive. I go to a UU church every now and then (though not for the UU services), and felt I could write with some brotherly anger.

    Seems to me you haven’t seen poverty, in San Antonio or here. You seem to have seen only the poor. Low on consumption, high on vulnerability, but also low on anxiety, high on spirituality and other traditions, low priorities on themselves but high priorities on their families and occasionally friends and visitors like you and me.

    Because poverty cannot be seen. Poverty is a process, or a multitude of processes. (Like Nature or God.) Those processes can be, and are, changed, sometimes forever. People don’t have to make salt like this. And if they have to, we don’t deserve to eat it.

    More than 80 years ago, an old man walked some 250 miles down south from this town (Ahmedabad) to break the British laws on making salt. That was the first taste of freedom. You are right, freedom tastes salty around here.

    And now is the time for someone to walk 250 miles out northwest from here to break the Indian laws on making salt — the unwritten law that these Dalits will keep on making salt so all of us keep eating it.

    Except that while that Old Bania had nothing to do but make salt and taste it, breaking this unwritten law will take a few years and a few million dollars (not much; after all, a Vibrant Gujarat has been attracting promises of domestic and foreign investments of a few billion dollars a year) to give these Dalits the education to run the machinery of modern salt-making.

    Since they are not about to rise in revolt – and it’s salt, after all, not crude oil – they might be around another few decades so poverty tourists like you and me can get our pictures taken and send out twits.

  4. Nikhil

    A couple of years ago, I was on an island (not Fiji) in the South Pacific. I went to a store to buy salt. There were some packages from Australia. And then there was this small plastic bag of salt from Gujarat.

    I was amused and flabbergasted. I was surrounded by an ocean, still the salt had to be imported.

    And globalization meant that salt from Gujarat could go to South Pacific (perhaps via Fiji, where Gujaratis opened shop a century or more ago) and compete against salt from Australia (or what could have been made right there on the island).

    Only because the beautiful, happy, smiling, free people Mr Morales saw earn so little.

    If only they could market their premium-quality crystal salt and handicrafts in Bethesda, Maryland.

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