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Updated on July 17, 2011


Salt which is so commonplace today and is taken for granted by all of us was at one time so precious a commodity that governments made policies that made and unmade empires. The use of salt dates back to 6050 BCE and was actively traded by the Phoenicians .For the Egyptians it was an important part of religious offerings.

For the ancients, salt being a highly valued commodity its production was legally restricted. It was in fact used also a currency at one time because the Roman legions were often paid in salt and this is the root of the word ‘salary’. For the Romans, salt was needed for empire building, because it was needed for their soldiers and horses. The first road which the Romans built, the Via Salaria, Salt Road was meant for transporting salt.

` During the middle ages, salt was needed not only for flavoring but also preserving food it was therefore highly prized and traded. Its importance can be gauged from the fact that the Hanseatic League formed around 1159 was formed to protect trade routes. As the original salt road between the German towns Lübeck and Hamburg became unsafe the merchants built a canal to replace it.


During British rule in Bengal, panga salt from the neighboring state of Orissa was very popular. It was also needed in large quantities to make gunpowder. British traded this salt and it was so profitable that they even tried to buy up all Orissa salt. But when this was resisted they banned the sale of Orissa salt in Bengal. It was a timely decision, because in the eighteenth century Cheshire was increasing its production of salt, and owing to its inferior quality in comparison with panga salt, the ban proved to be quite helpful. But that did not prove effective, as there was large-scale smuggling of salt from Orissa to Bengal. The thick forest that hedged the border of the states, made patrolling difficult and this facilitated regular smuggling of salt. The British found this a good excuse to annex the state of Orissa and by a proclamation of 1st November 1804, trading in salt became a British monopoly. The East India Company set the official price and banned private trading of salt in India. To ensure a fool proof collection of customs duty and prevent smuggling, a British official named G.H.Smith erected an impenetrable ‘salt hedge’. Duty had to be paid for carrying salt through the ‘customs line’ which encircled Bengal and later snaked through the entire stretch of the country from the steppes of the Himalayas to Orissa, a total distance of about 2500 miles. The hedge itself was interesting in nature. It was a 14 feet high and 12 feet thick thorny hedge of prickly pear and acacia.


This policy was naturally resisted in Orissa and the first shouts of protest took place in Cuttack in 1888. The Government was unrelenting and even went to the extant of doubling salt tax to balance the budget. Though voices of protest were echoed even in the British parliament, there was no change in policy. Though Orissa was the most affected and aggrieved state in India, Mahatma Gandhi realized that this was an excellent example of British misrule, because salt was consumed by every Indian. On 2nd March 1930 in a letter addressed to Lord Irwin he wrote "If you cannot see your way to deal with these evils and my letter makes no appeal to your heart, then on the twelfth day of this month I shall proceed with such co-workers of the Ashram I can take, to disregard the provisions of the salt laws."

Naturally there was no response; Gandhi from his ashram on the banks of the river Sabarmati announced his SALT SATYAGRAHA. He along with 78 select followers began their 240 mile walk to Dandi a small hamlet by the sea. On 15th April after 25 days of continuous daily march he reached Dandi. After his usual prayers, at the break of dawn the next day, Gandhi stepped into the lashing waves of the Arabian sea and scraped up salt symbolizing his defiance of British rule in India. The chain reaction that followed resulted in the spread of Indian national movement and subsequent exit of the British.


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