The salt-panners of the little Rann
Mon, Nov 16, 2009
kuensel online

Ever wondered how salt, an essential part of the Bhutanese diet, is produced?

The 5,000 sq km Little Rann of Kutch in India's western state of Gujarat, about 200 km from Ahmedabad, has been a traditional salt producing area.

Amidst the flat land, sky and mirages, hills of salt emerge every now and then. About 50,000 workers in the area produce 21 percent of the total salt production in India, of which a trickle is imported by Bhutan.

Known as Agarias, these salt makers live for five months in the hot, dry and salty flatland. They spend the rest of the year, working as farm labourers.

These migrants come in October, make huts over pits dug in the ground to protect themselves from the wind and the sun. There is no water, no groceries, no school, no hospital; it's just them and their saltpans.

Occupying the borders of the desert they draw water from the saline bore wells, let it flow into the salt-beds and rake the beds for crystals that are formed every eight days. They pull the rake through the water. With callused feet, bruised hands that have become hard as stone, and sunburnt faces, the saltpan workers work from 5 am till 6 pm. Almost 70 percent of the salt is produced using the evaporation method.

Small hills of salt are piled in the desert where the contractors then take the heaps of salt to the processing units to refine.

The saltpan workers buy water from a tanker that comes every five days. The water costs Rs 500 a month. "We get to bathe once in 15 days," said Khorabhai, 25.

The Agarias say they are exploited. "We sell their salt for 10 paise a kg when the market price is Rs 10 a kg," said Khorabai, 25.

Most of them are in debt - almost all the community members living in the place are indebted. "We are totally tied to merchants for getting leases and loans, buying diesel for their pumps, and finally selling the salt," says Narayan, 58.

Moreover, the land in the Little Rann does not belong to individuals. But the government has granted leases, allowing people, societies and even companies to manufacture salt.

Today, they are also fighting a battle of survival in the land where Mahatma Gandhi launched the salt movement, as the saltpans are located in what is a declared wildlife sanctuary for the last surviving species of the Asiatic wild ass.

Saltpan workers claim that they have been living in harmony with the wild ass. "We, the Agarias, are not a threat to the wildlife as we are vegetarians," said Khorabai, 25. "If our traditional occupation is taken away, then we'll die of hunger."

The only option, according to a local naturalist, Devjibhai Dhamecha, 65, is for the state government to rehabilitate and provide employment opportunities for the saltpan workers.

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