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A Fistful of Salt

by Ali Baba
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We have grown up reading and hearing about the non-violent revolution launched by Mahatma Gandhi and his band of 80 volunteers on the coast of Gujarat at Dandi in 1930 by picking up a fistful of salt. But I guess many of us have wondered at the choice of common salt to force the then world’s only superpower out of the country. IITB’s association with the Dandi Memorial Project provided an opportunity to learn some humbling facts.

There seems to be a correlation between salt tax and despotic rule.

On the occasion of the 75th anniversary of the march in 2005, the PM announced that a memorial would be constructed at the site and an HLDMC (bureaucratese for Higher Level Dandi Memorial Committee) was finally formed for the purpose in 2008 headed by Mr. Gopalkrishna Gandhi. This was just in time (JIT) for the election in 2009, but after that it made little progress until  2011, when IITB was asked to assist with the design of a solar photovoltaic energy system and later to take charge of the design and execution of the project itself. This must rank as one of the rare instances where IITB is involved in a national project of this significance and prestige. As part of this, a team of young sculptors from across the country arrived on campus to create statues of the marchers and I got to listen to Dr. Y. P. Anand who has produced a history of the salt tax in India.

 Image Couresy, Sabarmati Ashram, Ahmedabad

Image Couresy, Sabarmati Ashram, Ahmedabad

Salt was one of the earliest currencies used for trade, so one can imagine its importance to human civilisation. It has probably been taxed from the time that rulers felt the need for collecting revenue from the people rather than robbing them outright. There seems to be a correlation between salt tax and despotic rule. The Greek and Roman civilisations did not tax salt, in fact efforts were made to ensure adequate supplies at reasonable rates. Soldiers were paid their wages in salt (sal the Latin for salt, became salary); a man’s worth was measured in salt. On the other hand, a Chinese text from 300 BCE describes how the rulers could increase their revenue by taxing salt and monopolising its production and import, as it was an essential item and people would have no choice but to buy it even if it was exorbitantly priced. After the Roman withdrawal from Britain, salt was progressively taxed there and in the eighteenth century the tax on locally produced salt was several times its market value. The high prices gave rise to smuggling of cheaper foreign salt. To stop tax evasion and smuggling, inspectors were appointed which gave rise to corruption. In France, it was called gabelle and was first imposed in 1286. It was one of the causes of the discontent that led to the French Revolution and the tax was abolished in 1790. Unfortunately, it was so intricately linked to the finances of the state that it was re-introduced by Napolean in 1806 and was finally abolished only in 1945.

To make up for reduced supply of locally manufactured salt, ships returning empty from Britain were loaded with salt for Calcutta, rubbing salt in the wound, so to say. A tropical country with a vast coastline was importing salt from a country where it was manufactured by boiling brine by burning wood or coal.

The tax, against which the Dandi march was organised in 1930, had been with us from at least the Mauryan times in one form or another. The Arthashastra by Kautilya describes the duties of the lavananadhyaksha, an officer responsible for collection of salt tax amounting to about 25% of its value. In Bengal, during the Mughal times, it was taxed at 2.5% to 5%. What changed after the Battle of Plassey in 1757 was the high rate of taxation and how cruelly it was enforced. In 1765, Robert Clive formed a Society of Trade to benefit the officers of the East India Company in an effort to get a handle on the indiscriminate loot indulged in by the Company servants. Clive himself was the original robber-trader who had amassed a fortune for himself while being in the service of the Company. This ‘Exclusive Company’ claimed a monopoly on the production of tobacco, betel nut, and salt and levied duties of 25% on tobacco, 10% on betel nut, and 35% on salt. The Directors of East India Company in London did not approve of this but Clive and his committee in Calcutta dragged their feet on ending the monopoly of the Society. The price of salt rose from Rs 1.25 to Rs 2.47 per maund in the three years that the Society was in control. After the Society’s monopoly was abolished in 1768, the price of salt dropped to Rs 1.48 per maund. But the Company continued to use the salt tax to maximise revenue and established a Customs line to prevent the entry of cheap salt from other parts of the country to the Bengal presidency. The Madras and Bombay presidencies fared somewhat better as salt was not as heavily taxed there. This naturally led to a reduction in consumption of salt within the region under the salt monopoly, i.e., Bengal (8 lb per adult) as compared to Madras and Bombay (13 lb per adult). Salt is such an essential mineral requirement for the living being that animals are instinctively drawn to salt deposits and its deficiency in the diet can have disastrous impact on the health of the people and productivity. Underlining this while giving evidence before the Commons Select Committee on Salt in 1836, Dr. John Crawford of the Bengal Medical Service estimated that the cost of the annual requirement of salt for a family of five to a rural labourer was about two months wages.

Another revelation for me was that the salt tax was finally abolished only in 1947, just months before Independence.

The excessive tax and control of salt manufacture crippled the cottage industry and there were shortages. To make up for reduced supply of locally manufactured salt, ships returning empty from Britain were loaded with salt for Calcutta, rubbing salt in the wound, so to say. A tropical country with a vast coastline was importing salt from a country where it was manufactured by boiling brine by burning wood or coal.

The revenue that came from the salt tax could easily have been made up by raising tax on income but that affected a different class of people that the colonial powers did not wish to hurt. Rev. Dr. J. Wilson stated before the 1871 Select Committee on East India Finance that ‘increase in the salt duty had been recommended by some high class Indians in order to evade the burden of extra income tax otherwise likely to fall on them’. This perhaps, provides an insight into why the Dandi March caught the imagination of the people while the earlier calls for boycott of foreign goods and cloth had only limited success. After all, the toiling masses of the country could not afford imported goods and what little clothing they possessed was khadi in any case, whereas salt tax hurt them the most. As late as 1924-25, the revenue from salt tax was twenty times the income from land revenue!

Days before starting the Salt March, Gandhiji made a final attempt to persuade the Viceroy of the injustice of the salt tax and compared his salary of Rs 700 per day to the average Indian’s income of Rs 0.12 per day while the British PM earned a salary of Rs 180 per day against the average Briton’s income of Rs 2 per day. The injustice did not end there because the revenue collected from India was repatriated to Britain rather than being spent for the benefit of India.

Another revelation for me was that the salt tax was finally abolished only in 1947, just months before Independence.

Have things changed that much after Independence? Sudden rise in the price of commodities like onions just prior to an election is a phenomenon that we have almost come to accept as inevitable. Mopping up money from the bottom of the pyramid is a strategy that is used effectively by political parties as well as MNCs of today. The regions that were part of the former Bengal Presidency recently experienced a déjà vu, salt prices soared by more than ten times, to Rs 100 per kg on rumours of shortages. The prices were soon restored but not before some people had made a killing. The colonial rulers may have left, but their legacy endures.

1 comment

Bakul Desai January 21, 2014 - 12:48 pm

Not only is Ali Baba brilliant as ever, this time, his piece is very informative.

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