The salt of the earth

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The salt pans in the Rann of Kutch.
The salt pans in the Rann of Kutch.

Manas Dasgupta

The Little Rann of Kutch contributes about 60 per cent of the salt manufactured in the country. But Gujarat’s politicians have done little for the Agariya community that produces it.

Living in makeshift shanties in the barren landscape of the Little Rann of Kutch, some 5,000 odd families of Agariyas (salt pan workers) contribute to making our meals more palatable.

The salt manufactured in the coastal area here contributes about 60 per cent of the total salt produced in the country. But those who work to produce it in this inhospitable terrain lead pitiable lives.

Come September and the Agariyas with their household belongings leave their villages for the Rann where they remain till April, the following year. Their one-point programme: manufacturing salt. Their children miss out on school unless their parents leave them behind to attend “ashramshalas” (schools with hostels) until they grow up and join the family business of salt manufacture so that the cycle goes on. According to a recent survey conducted by the State government with the help of some voluntary agencies working among the Agariyas, 88 per cent of them are illiterate; among women, the rate is even higher at 94 per cent. Being totally cut off from any kind of social life, and living in isolation in the Rann, there is very little knowledge about their lives. Till recently, most of the government departments hardly even took note of their existence. It was only after some NGOs took up their cause that a couple of their problems were addressed.

The politicians wake up to their problems only during the elections, but except for some tall promises, nothing further happens. This is largely because the Agariyas are unorganised, have very few votes. Being away in the Rann for most of the year, they are not always able to exercise their franchise.

Just before December 2007 Assembly elections, Chief Minister Narendra Modi held a sammelan of Agariyas at Patdi, the last human habitation on the Indian side of the border. He made a string of promises for their welfare, but very few were implemented. A cycle per family to help them keep in touch with the outside world, safety kits, mobile schools for their children, housing facilities in their native villages and many promised have only remained on paper. The State government, however, has introduced a mobile ration shop to supply them foodgrains and other necessities, a mobile dispensary for regular check ups, and water tankers to supply them potable water in the middle of the desert. A water pipeline scheme prepared by the water supply department was thwarted by the forest department as it refused to allow any “construction” since the area is a protected sanctuary for the wild ass; permission has been denied even though the 4,000 odd animals of this threatened species are mainly found around the villages in the periphery and never in the middle of the Rann, where the Agariyas live. Since the government has not renewed lease of the salt pans since 1972, various government departments frequently harass them for ‘illegal’ occupation of the land.

Exploited by the rich traders and companies, the Agariyas live in abject poverty. While finished salt is sold at Rs. 9 or Rs. 10 per kg, it is purchased from the Agariyas at Rs. 180 per tonne ( about 18 paise per kg).

The Agariyas have demanded that they be given a “support price” on the lines that farmers get for agricultural produce. They believe this will help them get out the clutches of private traders and check harassment from government officials. But without the power of votes, they are having a hard time finding any takers.



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