Salt is rarely considered a matter of national puffery. But in Pakistan, Himalayan pink salt has been the subject of parliamentary debates, editorials and trending hashtags. And Pakistanis want you to know one thing: Upmarket salt is Pakistani.
In the U.S., Himalayan pink salt has become popular in a variety of uses, from cooking to spa treatments. You can even buy lamps made from it. But its origins are rarely highlighted or even mentioned on products — perhaps because Pakistan, where most of this salt comes from, isn't a place one associates with pink salt. Instead, the salt is often marketed as coming from some amorphous Himalayan mountain, perhaps an icy glacier.
But now, because of a convergence of political tensions with India and social media outrage, salt industry advocates say they're poised to pass legislation that will trademark Himalayan pink salt as Pakistani.
"This is a unique product," said Sen. Shibli Faraz, the leader of the Senate, who has repeatedly raised the issue in Pakistan's Parliament. "It would be also important to trademark it as a Pakistani product."
The salt is mined from rolling red-brick hills that rise from marshes in Khewra, about two hours from the capital, Islamabad. They are hundreds of miles from the iconic snowy peaks of the Himalayas, and the area shimmers with heat. The hills — known as the salt range — are distant tendrils of the Himalayas and are a remnant of a lagoon that existed some 600 million years ago, said Shahid Iqbal, a lecturer in the department of earth sciences at Quaid-i-Azam University.
Mining here was once a small-time industry that attracted little attention. Some 400,000 tons of salt are exported a year, largely as crude rock, according to Nadeem Babar, the adviser to Pakistan's prime minister on petroleum and natural resources. About a quarter of those exports were shipped at around $40 a ton to India — Pakistan's neighbor, with which it has fought four wars. The salt was literally blown out of mines, hauled in trucks and dispatched some 160 miles to the border.
But the exports came to national prominence this year after Pakistani Twitter discovered that the country was selling cheap salt to India, where it was being processed and sold at a markup — and worse, without listing the country of origin. The revelation triggered a viral campaign.
Politicians and bureaucrats took notice — like Faraz, the senator. He estimated that Pakistan had earned only about $26 million last year; other officials say it's about $50 million. In all cases, "it was being sold for a song," Faraz said. He believes those figures could triple with reforms. Faraz is now advocating legislation to discourage crude salt sales and encourage the production of high-value finished products.
Political events have added their own upheaval. On Aug. 5, India scaled back the autonomy of the part of Kashmir that it controls. Pakistani officials feared that India's move would weaken Pakistan's own claims to the disputed territory. Pakistan retaliated by banning bilateral trade with India, which has devastated the salt industry.
But Babar, the adviser to the prime minister, called it "a blessing in disguise."
The ban on bilateral trade has "put a hard line" in front of Pakistani companies "that they need to replace what was going to India. They need to replace it with other buyers," Babar said. He said the government was trying to make it easier for businesses by trying to lessen and simplify regulations.
Pakistan's salt industry hasn't seen dramatic reform since the 1870s, when the British colonial rulers of the subcontinent began wide-scale mining.
On a recent day, a senior government engineer, Azghar Khattak, accompanied NPR reporters about a mile deep into the mines. He drove down a narrow tunnel flanked by soaring chambers — places where the miners had previously hollowed out chunks of rock.
Two men cranked on a lever that powered a rusty drill to bore holes into the salt wall. One man twisted newspaper pages into cartridges and filled them with gunpowder from a sack. He stuffed the cartridges into a hole. Khattak lit a safety fuse and the miners shrank away as one yelled, "Khabardar!" — "Beware!" A crashing boom echoed as boulders of rock salt tumbled down. The miners hurled them into a truck adorned with bells and birds.
From there, some of the salt was ground up in plants both primitive and hazardous. In one factory, a man hurled pink rock salt into an enormous grinder from a nearby pile. Powdered salt shot out the other end, filling a 55-pound sack and thickening the air with fine, salty dust that crusted the workers' hair, clothes and even eyelashes. Workers swung filled sacks onto their shoulders to place atop a growing pile.
Qaisar Mahmood, a small-time salt exporter, said that those are typical conditions for a local plant. He said that this underscores the challenges facing the salt industry in Pakistan. Mahmood said he knew he could make $300 a ton selling to Europe. But he doesn't speak English, doesn't know the market and can't meet European standards.
"If they find even a strand of hair, they'll reject the entire batch," said Mahmood, laughing as he tugged at his hair. The Indian market is like the Pakistani market, he shrugged. Hair isn't a problem.
The senator, Faraz, says Pakistan could do better. And he says conditions will improve when he can pass laws that will trademark Himalayan pink salt. He says the move will allow Pakistan to accrue revenue when companies use the name — and it will tie Pakistan's name to an upmarket product.
Mahmood, whose business has been devastated by the ban on exports to India, said it's a bad idea to force companies to label salt as Pakistani, because the country is known as a place of troubles — not fancy salt.
Other traders disagreed.
On a recent day, Niaz Hussain Siddiqui, a rare Pakistani exporter of finished salt products, showed me some of the items he has exported to the U.S.: bricks for spa rooms, sushi platters and tequila shot glasses. Siddiqui, a devout Muslim who abstains from alcohol, shook his head disapprovingly. He said he prefers to think of the product as a toothpick holder.
He gestured to a popular product: a large cube of salt that is sold alongside a metal grater. "They are called Zen cubes in the USA," Siddiqui said. Siddiqui's client in the U.S. retails that cube for $16 — the same price that Pakistani companies get paid wholesale for nearly half a ton of crude salt.
Siddiqui said if his government could improve Pakistan's image, customers would pay more for the product. He said it would also increase demand for the rock salt. "If we can achieve that, I tell you, this is a different world" — a world, he said, where Himalayan pink salt is proudly Pakistani.
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