Habitation or desolation, humans exploit their brethren as is evident from the plight of salt workers in Little Rann of Kutch

In the midst of gliding and colourful birds in the harsh environs of Little Rann of Kutch stands a lone hut which attracts one’s attention if not curiosity. Meet Karo Bhai, his wife, Neeru Ben, and their shy and cute daughter, Sharda, whose hands and feet are whitened with salt.

The family belongs to the Agariya community and does salt panning. Their tiny but neat abode, divided into two parts — a living area and a kitchen, is made of wood, jute bags and dried hay, and hardly provides protection, much less comfort, from the burning sun, dry environment and cold nights.

Working as an employee of another Agariya who possesses the lease of this land for salt panning, Karo Bhai earns a meagre Rs.6,000 per month with no payment during the monsoon season – when the panning activity ceases. His two sons live with their grandmother in the village and attend school but alas, the girl is bereft of this, as Karo’s mother is too old to take care of her. Pecuniary worries aside, the daily struggle is heart wrenching. Bare essentials like drinking water, vegetables, other groceries are obtained once a week that after trudging a good distance. Water is used sparingly lest the tanker not turn up on the appointed day of the week.

Apart from the harsh living conditions, the Agariyas have to also deal with the high salt content in their body, which can lead to several serious diseases. Their hands and feet are often so saturated with salt that they have to be cut off when cremating the body, for they cannot be burnt.

Saline water pumped with diesel motor pumps is run through channels to collect in gamada (reservoir) – enabling it to absorb further salt and then finally into the salt pan where Karo Bhai keeps raking the water at frequent fixed intervals. At the bottom one can see the salt crystals. Dip a finger in the water and touch the tongue and you realise the high level of salinity.

The end product sold at the nearby market — for domestic and industrial use — brings in handsome dividends for the contractor but no benefits for the workers. One cannot help but recall the choice of salt by Mahatma Gandhi for his famous Dandi March which shook the rulers and ruled alike and juxtapose it with the plight of Karo Bhai’s family to be seen first-hand to be believed.