Himalayan salt or rock salt (halite) mined from the Punjab region of modern Pakistan, has caught the world attention after netizens from both India and Pakistan have been disputing over its ownership.
Its origin has now become a political issue. The rock 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 till now had been exporting the salt, not as a priced product. However, since a few months, it gained political attention in Pakistan due to a story broadcasted all over social media claiming the salt as “made in India”. Pakistani Twitter was furious: the salt cannot have been “made” in India when it was bought from Pakistan.
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 due to its historical links.
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.
Pakistani politicians took notice of the news spreading around. 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.
The 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.
Much of the Himalayan pink salt consumed across the globe comes from Pakistan. But against the backdrop of tense relations with neighbouring India, the rock salt has become a matter of national pride and sovereignty. Rather than selling the raw material at cheap rates to China and India, Islamabad should boost exports of pink salt to the West.