Life hasn’t changed much for small-scale salt pan workers known as Agariyas in the Little Rann of Kutch (LRK). It continues to be as harsh and predictable as the landscape. For centuries and generations, from as long as they can remember, it has been the same. These are people who have no story to tell about progress. Lack of access to education, and secluded from other occupations, they continue to depend on the only thing they know – salt production. This has meant generational poverty and lower life expectancies.
Do Waqt Ki Roti
“My father and my grandfather were all salt pan farmers. This is all we have known, but what can one do now? We try hard to do something else, for our daily bread. But we can’t change our village. Now, there are people like me, who have chosen to do farming, to carry on with our lives.”, says Shamjibhai (Translated from Kutchi).
He has two daughters and two sons. He lives with his wife, sons, a daughter-in-law, and a grandchild. The family shifted to farming this season, after deciding to leave salt cultivation. Salt production in LRK dates back thousands of years. The British began their monopoly in the middle of the 19th century. After independence, production grew as India became self-sufficient in salt. Today, more than 76% of India’s salt is produced in Gujarat, of which 70% is from Kutch.
Typically, the Agariyas from more than 100 villages begin their work around September, after monsoon every year, after taking an advance from local traders. For land preparation and cultivation, the workers require a minimum of Rs. 50,000. They make their temporary shelter during the season near their salt field. A nearby village would at least be 20 km away. During this time, children are away from accessing education.
After eight months of enduring all hardships, families are at the mercy of traders who dictate the price and quantum of purchase. They get less than Rs. 180 per ton which sells at Rs. 15-30 per metric kg in the market. The little amount earned by salt pan workers goes off in the cycle of expenses such as a wedding or sickness in the household, leaving them with nothing to save or invest in for future.
Wounds That Don’t Heal
Occupational hazards and ignorance about it have meant that most of the workers have health issues. Unlike other places, there is a paucity of Primary Health Centres (PHCs) in the area. For eight months, they are continuously exposed to salt. Prolonged exposure to salt causes many skin diseases. The reflection of the sun from the salt field gradually affects their eyesight. Women suffer from reproductive health issues. Their feet and calves absorb high salt content over the years.
The LRK has a few schools and therefore less education. For any growth opportunities, even skill development programs, children and youth have to go to towns. Most Agariya families cannot afford this. Thus, the literacy rates remain low.
In 1973, the Forest Department claimed that the LRK needed to be a wildlife sanctuary to protect the endangered wild donkey also known as Ghudkar. According to the guidelines, there must not be disturbance or interference of any kind and human activity must be minimal. Thus, any kind of machinery, noise pollution, and settlement is not allowed. This has led to another struggle for survival for salt pan workers who are forced to give up their leased lands.
This results in salt pan workers being unable to work on their terms. Majority of them have no choice but to be labourers under somebody. The villagers told me that deaths are occurring due to starvation. People are falling sick due to distress, loss of livelihoods, and inability of easily shifting their occupations into another form of labor. They are dying of hunger.
As most of the salt pan workers are from Muslim and socially backward communities, they find it difficult to get work easily. This has led to some of them migrating to Chirai in Bachau Taluka of Kutch where salt cultivation takes place. However, here they work as labourers employed by a company or in salt factories. There, they have to work directly in the salt pans. This has further led to the seclusion of workers.
The Interventions Around Salt
- Organizations are planning to give vocational training to the children of the salt pan workers, although the plans are still underway
- The government has introduced a seasonal hostel free of cost for children to stay and receive education during the eight months of salt cultivation, instead of staying near the salt mines
- The government is providing subsided solar-powered pumps to replace diesel pumps. This is an impactful environment-friendly intervention that is cost-effective, works for a longer duration, and is capable of extracting more inland water, as the per-second water output will also increase. With reduced production cost and higher yield, the salt worker net is expected to increase by almost 94%. Zilla Udyog Kendra is the body that gives a subsidy. The worker is refunded 80% of the investment after installation. The process, however, takes almost a year. The documents are submitted, and the form is filled. After the application process, a field visit is done to inspect the usage of solar machines by the workers, and in 3-4 months, they are refunded 80% of what they have invested.
- The NGOs further connect the workers to various schemes they are eligible for
- The pipeline laid through a joint venture of state government and Gujarat Water Supply & Sewage Board (GWSSB) is now functional.
At present, the interventions with salt pan workers cannot be continued through producer companies because giant actors like Archin and Solaris private companies have taken control of salt industries through mechanised tools. This means that they have bulk production, hence they capture the entire market. The salt pan workers with less production are left out. Small producer companies do not have any existence in front of these giant actors. Now, although the small-scale salt pan workers who used to work in LRK will lose their traditional livelihood, salt production will continue.