Himalayan pink salt has caught the imagination of health nuts the world over, but where it comes from has now become a political issue. The salt is estimated to have formed hundreds of millions of years ago, when ancient bodies of water evaporated; it is mostly mined from the Khewra Salt Mine in the foothills of the Salt Range in Jhelum, in the Pakistani province of Punjab.
Pakistan never considered pink salt a prized product, much less a matter of national prestige and sovereignty, until this year – after a story on social media that India has been re-exporting the salt worldwide and labelling it “made in India”. Pakistani Twitter was furious: the salt cannot have been “made” in India when it was bought from Pakistan.
Pakistani politicians took notice. Senator Nauman Wazir Khattak suggested filing a patent on pink salt to make sure it is sold with Pakistan’s name, not India’s, on it. Shibli Faraz, leader of the Senate and a member of the Standing Committee on Commerce and Textile, called pink salt a “unique product”; he repeatedly raised the issue in parliament and pressed for legislation for Pakistan to trademark pink salt.
However, trade between Pakistan and India has been suspended since New Delhi revoked the special status of the state of Jammu and Kashmir in August. As there seems to be no immediate resolution to the long-drawn Kashmir dispute, the salt trade with India cannot continue anyway.
In the first place, exports to India account for hardly 2 per cent of Pakistan’s total exports. This may be an ideal opportunity to come up with a new export strategy: sell pink salt not in raw form but as a finished product, and find new buyers directly.
Even though the Khewra Salt Mine is the world’s second largest, Pakistan is not among the world’s top 10 salt exporters; instead, neighbouring India and China are 7th and 9th respectively.
Nearly 30 per cent of global demand for salt is from China. Pakistani salt, which is 99 per cent halite and far purer than other varieties, should be feeding this demand. However, instead of refining this salt and maximising its exclusive value, Pakistan exports it cheaply in rock form.
The salt is pink because it contains trace minerals including iron. It retains more natural properties than table salt, as it is naturally harvested, manually extracted, minimally processed and free of artificial additives. The product is from ancient oceans, and deserves a slick marketing campaign.
Not only that, the Khewra Salt Mine is a worthy tourist attraction. Local mythology has it that the mines were discovered around 320BC, when Alexander the Great was riding across Pakistan and his horse started licking a salty rock on the ground.
The mines are spread across an area of 110 sq km, with tunnels running half a mile into a mountain. In addition, the mines are offering therapy to people with asthma or respiratory problems.
Pakistan’s salt exports grew from US$15.8 million in 2014 to US$51.6 million in 2018, according to official statistics. Nevertheless, some urgent steps need to be taken for Islamabad to get a foothold in international markets.
Pakistan has been exporting its pink salt as halite or rock salt; buyers then repackage it and resell it. So Pakistan must set up salt processing and packaging units, and come up with a better marketing strategy. Lately, a Pakistani masala brand started marketing pink salt to international buyers, but this has to be done on a larger scale.
Next, salt extraction should be slowed down in order to raise prices to an optimum level and bring in more revenue. Salt smuggling and sales to domestic retailers must be regulated. One of the main reasons international buyers find it easier to buy salt from other countries is that domestic sellers offer a dated electronic payment method; this must be remedied.
Finally, pink salt should be accorded the rights of “geographical indications” protected by the World Intellectual Property Organisation, so that illegal branding can be dealt with. According to market forecasts, global salt consumption will hit 335 million tonnes by 2020, and the global salt industry will be worth US$14.1 billion.
With an output of 325,000 tonnes per year and another 350 years to go, the Khewra mines are a virtual treasure trove. Pakistan must capitalise on them and capture markets around the world to achieve greater gains.