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Khewra mines: worth their salt

Published Feb 28, 2014 07:42am
A worker at work in the Khewra salt mines. — File photo
A worker at work in the Khewra salt mines. — File photo

MANY of us have visited the Khewra salt mines to see monuments made of rock salt. We have also bought rock salt souvenirs sold on the outskirts of the mines. But little else is known about this location famous for its pink salt. The salt is mined from a mountain range of almost 400 kilometres. The Khewra salt mines are believed to be the second largest of their kind in the world.

When one enters the mines, the tracks stop after a few hundred metres and a signboard indicates the tourist area on the left. But if we take a right, we come across the working area.

The British were the first to mechanise these salt mines in 1872. But, according to urban legend, the mines were discovered when Alexander travelled through this region. His army saw “their horses licking the rocks of this area,” says Abid, a local guide from the Pakistan Mineral Development Corporation who hands me a torch and a helmet as we enter the dark tunnel leading to the miners’ area.

The walls shine as the torchlight falls on the miners. Abid explains that everything here is made of salt; some of it is in crystallised form — hence the glistening effect.

Below us, the floor gets slippery. I see traces of a railway track which disappear after a few metres. “The last Sharif government stopped the railway system because it was not cost-friendly. Now we use the tractor trolley system to take out the salt,” he says, adding jokingly: “Rumour has it that people in his government made a lot of money selling so-called scrap metal from the tracks in here!”

As we slowly make our way inside, the tunnel network starts to spread. “There are 18 floors,” says Rana Tanveer, the chief mining manager who has joined us. “We’ve shut down some chambers because further mining can damage the structures,” he explains as we pass by an empty chamber and enter another where a number of miners are working. “Each of them has a team leader and 10 to 15 miners working with him,” Tanveer adds.

There’s minimum lighting. Most work with gaslights or are helped by the headlights of tractor trolleys that have to be filled up. Most of the workers are second- or third-generation miners. And the mining methods haven’t changed over the last century, a miner tells me.

Some find soft targets in the mountain wall to drill holes. Others make improvised dynamites with gunpowder to stuff inside the holes. These are ignited with a fuse lit at a safe distance. I notice most workers are not wearing helmets or any other mining gear.

“We are supposed to as a rule but never follow it since no one really checks us,” one miner casually tells me.

We quickly move away to a safe spot as preparations are made to light the fuse. Moments later, with a loud blast, one side of the mountain rock comes crumbling down.

As soon as that happens, other workers get to work, breaking the big rocks into smaller ones with sledgehammers, so that they are able to transport them on the trolleys parked nearby. Soon enough, the rocks have been broken and everyone starts picking up the smaller pieces and loading them onto the truck with bare hands.

The mine engineer hands me one piece. “Check it out, it’s pink — this is one of the most unique salts in the world.” It is not simply unique, it is also beautiful.

Pakistan produces more than 1.2 million tonnes of pink salt annually from this mountain range, which is less than 10pc of the actual potential. Lack of automation has prevented more production.

“We still use hand drills as you saw. We even use mules in the Kalabagh mine. These are outdated methods. Globally, the demand for salt is growing and Pakistan is missing out on huge revenues,” says Faisal Shah, a chief mining manager at the Warcha salt mine.

“Imagine our salt is not even known as Pakistani salt around the world. They call it Himalayan pink salt, and it is thought to be from Indian Punjab because we haven’t been able to market it well ourselves.”