Manas Dasgupta

The villages they live in have been declared a protected wildlife sanctuary

AHMEDABAD: The livelihood of over 50,000 salt workers in Gujarat is threatened by a Central government notification declaring the Little Rann of Kutch as a protected wild ass sanctuary.

The notification was issued in 1997 when the Centre declared six biodiversity zones in the country as protected wild life sanctuaries, the Little Rann of Kutch being one of them. But the totally illiterate salt workers, virtually living in isolation, came to know about the notification only recently when the State forest department, the implementing agency, issued them eviction notices to clear out of the protected sanctuary.

All pleas of the salt workers to leave them alone were ignored by the State authorities who made it clear that the time to accommodate all those having traditional rights on salt pans in the region expired long ago. The notification is claimed to have given the traditional dwellers in the region 60 days time to file applications with documentary evidence to establish their traditional rights to be considered by the government for alternatives when they were cleared out of the protected sanctuary.

The notification earmarked some 5,000 square kilometre area covering parts of Kutch, Rajkot, Surendranagar and Patan districts in Gujarat as a protected wild ass sanctuary. The region has 107 villages with a population of just about 50,000 falling within the declared sanctuary. Inundated by sea, for generations salt manufacturing is the only source of livelihood in the marshy region and the workers know no other trade. "Where do you go and what do we do to support our families if our traditional job is snatched away from us?" asked Manjibhai Vajebhai of Koprani village in Suendranagar district.

The state authorities do not have any answer. "Since you have not filed an application in 1997, you have to go," is all that the State authorities tell them. Any attempt to stay within the sanctuary area will attract a fine of Rs 25,000 or three years in jail.

"We do not even earn Rs 25,000 a year for the entire family, from where do we pay the fine?" asks Narubhai Gogalbhai, another salt manufacturer in Santalpur village in Patan district.

They are all prepared to go to jail instead. "Let the government convert the entire Little Rann of Kutch into a jail and all the 50,000 people will live there, not for three years, maybe five or many more years. At least in jail, the government will feed us," he said wryly.