SALT OF THE EARTH
by Anosh Malekar
Images by Vivek Singh
Generations of Agariyas have made a living making salt in the barren wastes of the Little Rann of Kutch. In 2007, they were asked to make way for a wild ass sanctuary in the area, and the Agariyas are staking their claim to this land which has never been surveyed, pointing to an edict from Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb granting them rights to this land.
Whenever I go back in memory to the Little Rann of Kutch, I realize that the landscape is clearly fixed for me in time and place. I can conjure up the image without difficulty because over the years this extraordinary place in Gujarat on India’s west coast has retained all its colours – the cracked brown vastness of the mudflats under a searing white sun, the bare horizon without a spot of green, the azure sky devoid of a single cloud, and men, women and children of the Agariya community engaged in neat square fields of steadily evaporating salt waters. The blaze of sunlight reflecting from the white salt deposits scalds the eye, but the jagged mural formed by the Agariya’s primitive salt-making activity accompanied by the rare sight of a wild species, a herd of wild ass or a lonely fox, completes the landscape.
Life is tough in the Little Rann (the Kutch desert is divided into the Little Rann and the Great Rann) with temperatures soaring above 50 degrees Celsius during peak summers and dropping to near zero on winter nights. In June, the monsoons herald the invasion by the Arabian Sea through the Gulf of Kutch causing the mudflats to disappear under knee-deep water for four months and, as a consequence, become saline. The salt-impregnated wilderness spreads over 5,180 sq kms and is also known as India’s ‘Survey Number Zero’ because no land survey has been conducted here since the British left.
The Office of the Settlement Commissioner & Director of Land Records at Dr Jeevraj Mehta Bhavan in Gandhinagar said the state government had no land data and no survey number to identify the Little Rann. This is surprising because for centuries the saline desert with extremely sparse vegetation cover has been a vital source of livelihood for a large number of people, mainly salt workers, and a rare habitat for a thriving population of one of the endangered sub-species of the Asiatic wild ass (Equus hemionus khur).
The Survey of India (SOI) topographical maps of 1960 vintage used to estimate the habitat, vegetation cover and salt fields, have proven inadequate in documenting changes in its land-use over the centuries. And the resulting absence of a proper habitat management plan has led to an increase in the conflict between man and the wild in recent decades. Environment and wildlife groups are concerned that salt cultivation and the accompanying human activity is threatening the sparse vegetation that is so vital to the existence of the wild asses, turning them into crop predators and thereby triggering the human-animal conflict.
However, activists working for the welfare of the salt workers argue that the wild ass has thrived over the years inside the Little Rann. According to Gujarat Ecological Education and Research (GEER) Foundation, the population of the sub-species has been increasing since the 1990s, and may reach 4,000 by 2010 from 362 in 1969. “This proves there is no human-animal conflict. The salt workers, who have lived here for centuries, have co-existed peacefully with the wildlife,” Harinesh Pandya of the Agariya Hit Rakshak Manch or Salt Workers' Welfare Forum said.
Pandya had earlier filed an application under the Right to Information (RTI) Act with the State Revenue Department, seeking details of surveys conducted in the Little Rann of Kutch since 1947. The application sought to know the number of land surveys, the survey number, exact demarcation of the desert according to the jurisdiction of the different districts it falls under, and rights of the traditional communities and other tribes in the area. The application was forwarded to the District Inspector of Land Records (DILR) Office in Kutch, which in turn informed him that no survey of the region had been conducted so far. "They told me that this was the reason why the region does not even have a survey number," Pandya said.
After nearly two years, on January 29, 2009, the state information commission issued orders, directing the Revenue Department, Office of the Settlement Commissioner & Director of Land Records, and the DILR office in Kutch, to submit complete and correct information to the RTI applicant within three weeks from the receipt of the order. “This type of ambiguity on the Little Rann puts a huge question mark on all that has been happening here. Not only is there no survey number, there seems to be no clarity about whose jurisdiction the area falls under,” Pandya said.
According to the DILR, the area known as Little Rann of Kutch fell under the jurisdiction of six districts of Gujarat – Kutch, Rajkot, Surendranagar, Patan, Jamnagar and Banaskantha. The DILR further mentioned that the area was notified as Ghudkhar or wild ass protected forest and an officer of the level of additional collector was in charge of work relating to this. But the State Forest Department’s public information officer (PIO) and the deputy conservator of forests had no details to offer on the issue. Similarly, the PIOs of Banaskantha and Rajkot district administrations refused to provide information saying that the RTI queries from Pandya did not pertain to their jurisdiction and that no such area was part of their districts.
After multiple transfers of the RTI application, with no desired information forthcoming, Pandya finally moved the Gujarat Information Commission. "I took this step, as the area is of strategic and ecological importance. Every inch of land in India has been surveyed. It is strange that there is no information about such a huge area. Land survey is also important because the traditional rights of salt pan workers and some nomadic tribes as well as other tribes staying in this area have been under official scrutiny.”
The seeds of the present conflict were sown when the first set of notifications for the Wild Ass Sanctuary in the Little Rann of Kutch was issued on January 12, 1973 under the Gujarat Wild Animals and Wild Birds Protection Act, 1963. The sanctuary was proposed on a total area of 4840.899 sq km across four districts of Surendranagar, Rajkot, Patan and Kutch. The second notification came in 1978, under the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, covering some more peripheral area and taking the total area of the sanctuary to 4953.7 sq km.
In early-1997, an office was set up by the state government for the survey and settlement of the claims of traditional dwellers of the sanctuary in Surendranagar. Predictably, they have been up in arms ever since. An assemblage of NGOs led by Harinesh Pandya called Janpath, which works for the welfare of salt pan workers, and Sukhdev Patel of Ganatar, which runs mobile schools for their kids, are lobbying the state government to end the uncertainty over their existence inside the Little Rann. Interestingly, while the State Forest Department has issued eviction notices to the salt workers, the state government has provided identity cards to nearly 41,000 of them, certifying them as traditional salt pan workers.
Land rights issues involving salt workers in Gujarat are much more complicated than say farmers affected by government attempts to acquire their privately owned farmland for special economic zones (SEZs) or other industrial purposes elsewhere in the country. The majority of the salt workers do not own land. They are holders of traditional lease of arid and fallow land for `salt farming', issued by the government to individual salt workers and their cooperatives as well as some 20-odd private firms. Until 1963-64, this renewable lease for a plot of five to ten acres was for 10 years and thereafter for five years.
When the Centre decided to reserve the land for a sanctuary to protect the wild ass, the State Forest Department, as the official implementing agency, started attempts to acquire land inside the Little Rann. Interestingly, while the companies' leases continued to be renewed as usual, the individuals' leases were not renewed from 1997 onwards. The salt workers were finally issued eviction notices in 2007. But sensing popular protest in an assembly election year, the state government led by Chief Minister Narendra Modi promised to try and persuade the Centre to reconsider dislodging the salt workers. The government is presently seeking documented evidence from the Agariyas to establish their right to produce salt inside the Wild Ass Sanctuary.
With no official surveys or documents to help establish their traditional rights over land inside the Wild Ass Sanctuary, the threat of eviction and subsequent loss of livelihood has been a constant for salt pan workers for some time now. In a bid to help dispel the eviction cloud, representatives of NGOs working for them claim to have gone to the extent of digging out a historic 'farmaan' (ordinance) issued by Mughal emperor Aurangzeb in 1669, where the salt pan workers of Halvad in Surendranagar district find a mention.
Harinesh Pandya stumbled upon the book Salt Industry in India, a pre-Independence era British publication to which the farmaan has been appended, during a visit to the Salt Commissioner's office in Jaipur in 2007. He has presented the farmaan issued by Aurangzeb as documentary evidence of the traditional claims of Agariyas over their land before the Surendranagar Additional Collector, who is in-charge of settling the land claims.
"The farmaan clearly indicates that proper land records and distribution systems were in place for the Little Rann of Kutch even during the Mughal period,” Pandya said. Assigning the Mahal or district of Halud – a part of Ahmedabad Subah – as a jagir to Nazar Ali Khan, the farmaan describes the Subahs comprising of 112 villages and salt pans, as generating revenues of 25. 8 lakh dams (dam was the currency in circulation during the period).
Pandya hopes the Mughal-era farmaan will help set the records straight. "It is impossible for the Agariyas to produce any recent documentary evidence of their customary rights," Pandya said arguing that the onus lies with the government to seek and find the evidence.
An estimated 43,000 people – salt workers, their families and dependents – are engaged in salt farming during the September-March season in the Little Rann, many of them living for eight months in conditions comparable to medieval times. Salt production in the Little Rann dates back 5,000 years, but it was the British who came to regulate it and transformed Kharaghoda, a remote village then, and now located in Surendranagar district, into a salt hub. Local historian-writer Ambubhai Patel said: “Historical sources indicate that by the middle of the 19th century, British India derived 10% of its revenues from the monopoly of salt. The salt pan workers from Kharaghoda and other smaller villages on the periphery of the Little Rann have been the unsung beasts of burden of the salt industry since then.”
In British India, salt was a government monopoly. Indian salt was heavily taxed to enable the import of English salt. Despite the symbolic defiance by Mahatma Gandhi’s salt satyagraha at Dandi in 1930, followed by satyagrahas in different parts of the country against the salt tax, it was not repealed until Jawaharlal Nehru became the President of an interim government in 1946. In free India, salt is an “essential item” and a Central subject. All aspects of the salt industry are controlled by the Salt Commissioner from Jaipur in Rajasthan.
Soon after Independence domestic salt production was encouraged and the country became self-sufficient before long, in 1953. Today, India is the third largest producer of salt in the world and some 5 million tonnes of its annual production of 17 million tonnes are exported. The country owes this primarily to the centuries of hard slog by 150,000-odd salt pan workers in the coastal and desert regions of the country which often lack even basic amenities like drinking water, hospitals, schools and markets. Perhaps the pitiless landscape of the Little Rann typifies the situation of India’s salt workers.
The nature of the Agariyas’ existence can be gauged from the fact that even today they use broken pieces of mirror to flash messages during the day across long distances inside the Little Rann, much like the native Americans and Australian aboriginals used fire to send smoke signals. “The conditions of the Agariyas had changed little since Sir Charles Pritchard of the Bombay Salt Department started production of salt inside the Little Rann in1872. The method of making salt (solar evaporation of subsoil brine) is the same, the measure for salt (one cubic square inch) is the same, the piece-rate system of payment is the same, even the day of annual payment (Janmasthami festival) is the same,” Patel said.
The Agariyas migrate here every year from the 109 villages bordering the Kutch desert after the monsoon. It’s a vicious cycle that begins with an Agariya family seeking an advance or loan from a wholesale salt trader who pre-fixes the price at which he will buy the salt from them at the end of the season. The advance or loan money will meet the running costs of manufacturing salt and afford subsistence living for the family in a temporary shelter on a plot adjoining the pans.
The entire family, including children, first constructs a hut and then prepares the fields, hardening the land surface and raising embankments with their bare hands and feet to create about a dozen evaporation pans, measuring approximately 200 ft by 250 ft. Simultaneously, they dig a shallow well and with the help of Rajkot pumps, a locally manufactured contraption that operates on crude oil, start drawing saline groundwater into the first of the pans.
In a series of chores that have remained unchanged for centuries, the briny water is then transferred from one pan to another through narrow channels to increase the salt content before it reaches the final pan where it starts producing salt. During the four months this process takes, they frequently scrape the surfaces of the salt pans with very heavy wooden rakes to even out the salt, which is slowly captured and dried by the heat, transforming the pans into hard fields of coarse salt ready for harvest.
The salt that the Agariyas produce is locally known as Badagara, simply meaning salt produced in the Bada (big) Agara (pan). This inland salt in large-grain crystal form is distinct from the marine salt produced in the coastal regions of nearby Saurashtra. Gujarat produces 70% of India’s salt and inland salt from the Little Rann accounts for almost 40% of this.
Inland salt sells for Rs 3-5 per kg, mainly in the markets of north India and Nepal, which does not produce any salt, but the Agariyas of Little Rann get just about 12-15 paise a kg, less than their production cost in most cases. A chain of middlemen—traders, transporters and retailers—grab most of the profits, leaving little or nothing for them. There is a popular saying in this part of Gujarat: “Debt is what an Agaria never fails to bring back home”, referring to his return from the Little Rann to the village at the end of the salt manufacturing season.
Halfway through the season, in January 2009, when I visited the Little Rann, it was no different. I could barely hear their querulous tones amidst the cantankerous clatter of the crude oil pumps. “Last Janmasthami we agreed to a price of Rs 15 per 100 kilograms. Right now our salt is selling at Rs 45 in the Patdi town market,” Labhubhai Bababhai said. Labhubhai hails from Kharaghoda, now a big village with 12,000 residents. It is barely 7 km from Patdi, the relatively prosperous town of local salt traders. Kharaghoda is sometimes referred to as the village of widows because some 500 local women have lost their husbands at a relatively young age. The death figure is unusually high, but hardly surprising considering the majority of the dead men are Agariyas.
Most of the salt pan workers come from the impoverished Koli and Chuvaliya Koli tribes. Working as bonded labourers in harsh conditions and exploited for decades, they generally die young. Throughout their working lives -- they start very young as children of sever or eight years -- the Agariyas are known to face serious physical and mental health hazards. Working in extreme temperatures without any protective gear against the high exposure to sun and salt, many Agariyas suffer blindness and skin damage. The exposed body parts get covered in an abrasive coating of salt, drastically reducing their life expectancy. “Even a small cut takes months to heal,” Labhubhai said.
According to the latest available report prepared by the Union Ministry of Labour and titled ‘Working and Living Conditions of Salt Workers in India’, “The Aghariyas, who depend exclusively on salt processing, live in very poor conditions. There is a lack of basic amenities like drinking water, shelter, education and facilities like gumboots, sunglasses, tools and healthcare….. Children are brought up on salty land with no activities for growth. The seasonal workers live on the pan itself….They face health hazards like blisters, burns, cuts, eye burning, falling hair, headaches and many other ailments. Lower legs and feet develop lesions like ulcers and wart. Skin problems occur like scaling, atrophic scars, keratodermia, callosities, and fissures. This facilitates enhanced absorption of salt into the body, which could be one of the causes of high blood pressure. They also have to drink saline water most of the time. The incidence of Vitamin A deficiency, night blindness, tuberculosis, infant mortality and gynaecological problems are common”.
The late Dilip Ranpara, a Gujarati writer who published a book on the exploitation and sufferings of salt pan workers in the early-1990s, has described how the Agariya’s hands and legs take more time to burn on the funeral pyre than his body because a lifetime spent working in salt causes them to harden and become nearly acid-proof. The book, titled Kali Majuri, Dholo Mithoo (Black Labour, White Salt), is often quoted by social activists in public and official forums. But still, not many people are aware of this darker side of common salt.
The Agariyas in Kharaghoda recalled the Agaria Kalyan Sammelan (Conference for the Welfare of Salt-Makers) organised by Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi at Patdi to announce his government’s grand plans to develop the Navlakhi Port in Kutch near the Little Rann of Kutch with a special jetty dedicated for salt export so as to fetch the best prices for salt workers. “The proposed port will cut down transportation costs and give a boost to the local economy, at a time when the Railways have failed to provide any concession in freight charges for salt. Also, the government wanted to develop a Rann-based tourism plan,” said a senior aide of the chief minister in Gandhinagar.
The salt workers, with little or no education, fail to comprehend such grand development initiatives. All they have known is a poverty-stricken existence along the coast. Their already difficult life has been made even tougher by the deadly triumvirate of natural disasters at the beginning of the past decade – the cyclone in 1998, droughts in 1999 and 2000, and a deadly earthquake in 2001, when the governments of the day failed to help them substantially. As one salt worker, unconsciously stating the problem as he looked across the bountiful hot fields of salt, said: "What good are these grand promises when the governments cannot provide us drinking water, hospitals and schools. If anything, the government of the day should protect us from outside companies coming here to destroy our livelihood".
Privately-owned medium to large companies account for more than two-thirds of the total 1 million tonnes of salt produced annually inside the Little Rann of Kutch. They use much the same methods as the salt workers to "harvest" their produce. But they machine-process the raw crystals of salt into consumer-friendly fine salt, and iodise it. In comparison the ordinary salt worker extracts and sells the salt at slightly lower prices in the form of unprocessed, roughly bagged, iodine-sprayed crystallized salt. This crude product tends to harden into a single lump if touched by damp.
The marginalisation of the small producer has been an issue in the Little Rann for over a decade now. But things came to a head at the end of 2008.
The stillness of the Little Rann of Kutch was interrupted in early-December 2008 by a fleet of heavy vehicles, earthmovers, tractors and trucks, their movement causing clouds of dust to rise in the air. Dust can wreak havoc with the salt pans, making the salt yellowish and reducing its price. “The salt workers were initially worried about the impact of the movement of heavy vehicles on the quality of salt, but soon realised the bigger threat,” Sukhdev Patel, founder-president of the Agariya Hit Rakshak Manch or Salt Workers' Welfare Forum, said. He was referring to a mud wall being constructed across several kilometers inside the Little Rann to demarcate a recent sub-lease of land by Hindustan Salts Limited (HSL) to a private firm.
HSL, a public sector company, had stopped manufacturing salt a few years ago, claiming financial losses. But it remains the biggest holder of lease land in the Little Rann. It continues to fulfill its quota of supply to various government entities including the army by buying salt from traders in the open market. In 2000, it approached the Board for Industrial and Financial Reconstruction (BIFR) which decides the fate of sick public sector units in the country, and was sanctioned a revival scheme. A total of 994 salt workers employed with it were offered a golden handshake. Having no money, HSL offered them small pieces of land out of its reserve of 23,000 acres for making salt.
The latest sub-leases – some 2,300 acres to Chennai-based Brahmani Mata Salts and another 500 acres to Sai Mata Salts, also from the south – caused serious apprehensions among the salt workers from Kharaghoda. And adding fuel to the fire, HSL declared a voluntary retirement scheme for the last 97 salt workers on its rolls – offering Rs 1.19 lakh each – within days of the sub-leases to private firms becoming public knowledge. Patel said the main issue was not employment for 97 salt workers, but the entry of more private salt manufacturers, which was a direct threat to the traditional rights and livelihoods of over 2,000 salt workers and their families from Kharaghoda.
Salt workers like Bacchubhai Gandabhai and Pralhadbhai Jayarambhai were concerned that the heavy equipment and deeper bores used by the private firms would dry out their wells. ‘We do not dig beyond 50-60 metres, but these companies go up to 150-200 metres. It can adversely impact the water table.” HSL top officials refuted the charge. “Some vested interests are trying to instigate the salt workers, telling them the private firms would make more and better quality salt and snatch away their livelihood. But they will not succeed,” a senior official said. “We are trying to revive a loss-making unit. HSL has switched to trading salt as this is less capital- and labour-intensive than manufacturing the commodity”.
The senior official, who did not want to be identified, further explained that HSL was sub-leasing to private salt manufacturing firms to prevent illegal encroachment on its land. Besides, the lease amounts also served as a vital source of revenue. The 500 or so protesting salt workers and activists, who caused temporary suspension of the mud wall construction in mid-January 2009, came around soon after a team of top HSL officials rushed to the Little Rann from its headquarters in Jaipur. Their much-touted satyagraha or Gandhian protest inspired by Gandhi’s salt march at Dandi and planned for Republic Day on January 26, 2009, also fizzled out.
The most surprising thing in the entire episode was the stony silence of Gujarat’s forest officials. It is not humans alone that stand to be affected by the increased human and industrial activities. The Little Rann is after all the last refuge of the endangered Asiatic wild ass. The forest officials acted only after Dhrangadhra Prakriti Mandal, a local NGO working for the protection of the wild ass sanctuary, filed a public interest litigation before the Gujarat High Court, raising many issues including HSL's right to sub-lease land and to build the wall in an area declared by the Gujarat government as Kutch Biosphere Reserve (KBR). The high court served a notice to the state's forest department and ordered a stay on the heavy machinery work in the area.
“The state forest department’s only concern appears to be to throw the impoverished Agariyas out of the Little Rann. Last year, it even blocked a government plan to lay a pipeline inside the Little Rann to provide potable water to the Agariyas. Now, when a mud wall is being constructed virtually dividing the wild ass’ grazing area into two, the forest authorities choose to be mute spectators,” social activist Ishwarbhai Desai said.
Salt workers like Kantibhai, who is among those offered VRS by HSL, felt his lot would have been better under British rule. “From what we have heard our elders say, they (the British) took good care of our people. Those were the glory days at Kharaghoda. The salt pan worker was a king then.” Historian-journalist Ambubhai Patel agreed: “Under the British some 900 families were employed permanently in salt-making. Kharaghoda was connected by a broad-gauge line, and the railway link extended into the Little Rann. Also, they built an excellent water supply scheme whose remnants exist inside the Little Rann to this day.”
I was taken to see another symbol of Kharaghoda’s past glory -- the Bulkley Market – by local activist and an expert guide to the Little Rann, Savshibhai. It is a Gothic structure built in 1905 by a British collector of salt taxes named Mr Bulkley, who, according to the cornerstone, “interested himself greatly in welfare of the village”. He also gave Kharaghoda an excellent hospital, equipped with isolation wards for patients with communicable diseases. “If you ask me, I would give the British 90 marks out of 100, and not even 10 to Indian governments for what they have reduced us to,” Ambubhai Patel said at the end of the tour.
Earlier, Savshibhai took me on a day-long tour of the Little Rann and a few surrounding villages to observe the conditions in which the salt workers survive today. There is no drinking water here anymore. The salt workers and their families buy water from a tanker that comes every week, if they are lucky. Otherwise, they either trek on foot or cycle 10-15 kilometers to fetch drinking water. “There is no water, no fuel, no school, and no hospital... nothing near by,” complained Leelaben Labhubhai. "We work like donkeys in the salt pans without a day off for eight months. We get to bathe every 15 days, that is the only luxury we can afford here.”
If given an option, the salt workers say they would gladly give up salt harvesting. Leelaben’s husband, Labhubhai, said he cannot perceive a way out of the exploitation by traders and middlemen, and the inaction by governments. "We are living like slaves in a free country. Earnings from the salt pans are diminishing, as the expenditure on pumping brine is going up due to a gradual fall in the water table each season,” he said, explaining how some have had to abandon their salt pans halfway through the salt-producing season because there was not enough brine. “Lately, salt pans have become a risky venture,” Labhubhai concluded.
People like Labhubhai and Leelaben are treading a thin line for survival and will need more then just salt to sustain them in future. Once the government decides on settlement of land rights inside the Little Rann, and implements a proper habitat management plan aimed at protecting the wildlife, the salt pan workers will be an endangered species. The government at the moment is silent on this issue, but senior forest officials in Gandhinagar confirmed that only those salt workers holding leases issued before January 12, 1973, will be considered `authorised claimants’ during the settlement process. A large majority of salt workers, who hold salt pans as sub-leases from merchants or private companies, will have to lose their only source of livelihood once the wild ass sanctuary plans take off.
I could not miss the bitter irony in all this. In 1930, the Mahatma and his 78 followers marched 241 miles across the state of Gujarat to the salt pans on the Dandi coast – proclaiming resistance not just to Britain's ban on the private production of salt, but to its colonial reign. It was Mahatma Gandhi who elevated salt to a powerful symbol of purity, tradition and freedom for Indians. In Independent India, the indigenous harvesting and marketing of salt is exposed to the catastrophic consequences of government’s negligence and privatisation policy.
Sadly, the natural salt industry is dead and gone in Dandi too, being replaced by chikoo and mango farming over the decades and, of late, by shrimp culture. Aquaculture Farmers’ Association secretary Manoj Sharma said: ”The salt industry has died a natural death. People have found more lucrative alternatives than keeping land aside for vast salt pans. There are over 100 ponds for shrimp farming in and around Dandi, with an annual turnover of around 500 tonne, having an estimated value of about Rs 4 crore.”
Not surprisingly, the state government now wants to promote prawn culture inside the Little Rann to create new job opportunities for the next generations of salt workers. Modi has promised that the much touted Rs 11,000-crore scheme for the development of Gujarat’s coastal areas and fisheries will also percolate down to the salt workers. “This is sad. Instead of promoting our salt, which is both organic and highly edible, India wants to close down its biggest salt pan. If this salt was manufactured in the West, I am sure they would have sold it for the price of gold,” local historian Ambubhai Patel said.
Many like Patel, who have been associated with salt making since their birth, felt the entry of more private players -- at last count some seven companies had entered the salty desert -- would lead to overexploitation of the natural resource. And it won’t be long before traditional salt making becomes history in the Little Rann.
First Published on infochangeindia.org in March 2009