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Salt pains

By Anosh Malekar

An estimated 43,000 people -- saltpan workers, their families and dependants -- engage in salt farming during the September-May season in the Little Rann of Kutch, living and working in conditions that can only be described as medieval. They earn 12 paise a kg of salt produced, suffering all sorts of skin diseases from being constantly immersed in brine. There is no power, no potable water, no schools and no healthcare here

"Can't you see water? It's everywhere," my guide Savshibhai joked. It was an old joke, reserved for unsuspecting visitors to the hot, dry, flat wasteland called Little Rann of Kutch in the western Indian state of Gujarat. The water referred to was a huge mirage that surrounded us on all sides. In reality, the Little Rann is a salt-impregnated wilderness, its pitiless landscape made up of cracked brown mudflats stretching out to a bare horizon without even a spot of green.

The only sign of life on the horizon is the hazy outline of men, women and children from the local community of Agariyas engaged in neat square fields of steadily evaporating salt waters. The jagged mural formed by their primitive salt-making activity and accompanying poverty 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 touching 50 degrees Celsius in peak summer and dropping to near-zero during the winter nights. In June, the monsoon heralds an invasion by the Arabian Sea from the mouth of the Gulf of Kutch, causing the mudflats to disappear under knee-deep water for four months and, as a consequence, become saline.

The Little Rann spreads over 5,180 sq km and is also known as India's 'Survey Number Zero' because no land survey has been conducted here since the British left in 1947. The area falls under the jurisdiction of six districts in Gujarat -- Kutch, Rajkot, Surendranagar, Patan, Jamnagar and Banaskantha -- adding to the overall confusion.

It is extremely difficult to find your way around the unmarked mudflats without the help of an expert guide, preferably a local truck driver; it's the only way one can negotiate this barren, inhospitable wilderness without getting lost.

I still remember my first foray into the desert, on a particularly hot summer afternoon in the year 2000. I had chanced upon Bhikabhai at the local salt market in Patdi town on the periphery of the Little Rann. He was busy loading jerrycans of water into his truck, though his main task was to transport salt from the pans for traders in town. I bought my favour by assisting Bhikabhai load the cans, behaving as if I was his officially assigned help. And he agreed to drive me into the Little Rann to meet the saltpan workers.

It was a drought year across many parts of Gujarat, and I had heard that the situation was very bad across the dry Kutch desert. The saltpan workers cheered our arrival for a simple reason: truck drivers invariably turn up with precious stocks of drinking water. The 20 litres Bhikabhai and I had brought were barely enough for the group of 20 or so men, women and children toiling in the midday heat (the mercury hovered above 45 degrees Celsius). It was virtual hell out there and walking just a few metres was a major effort.

A desperate woman salt worker, with only the tattered end of her sari protecting her infant from the sweltering heat, said: "There is no water, no doctor here. If somebody collapses due to the heat and exhaustion, there is little we can do except pray to god. A medical emergency at night is worse, because there is no power inside the Rann."

Ignorant about their socio-economic situation, I asked her why the grown-up children, who looked ill and unkempt, were not in school. She said there were no schools, and no hospital. Social activist Prashant Raval, who is also a successful organic farmer from Patdi, explained: "The debt-ridden Agariyas can barely afford basic food. Most children suffer malnutrition and poor eyesight because of lack of vegetables and fruit in their diet."

A 1999 study of 1,549 salt workers with over 10 years of exposure in working at various salt sites in the Little Rann of Kutch and nearby villages, by the Ahmedabad-based National Institute of Occupational Health (NIOH), showed significantly greater skin and eye symptoms among them. High blood pressure and increases in urinary sodium excretion are also common among those involved in the production of salt.

There is no alternative means of livelihood because very few saltpan workers own farmland at their village of origin. "There is no other work we know. During the rains, we work on other people's farms. Besides that there's nothing," the woman salt worker said. The fact that most of them are illiterate does not help.

Nearly nine years later, in January 2009, with Savshibhai -- a cheerful man in his early-30s, who worked earlier as a truck driver in the desert -- for company, I found things hadn't changed much inside the Little Rann. Across the mud and salt wilderness, there was neither power nor potable water, and malnourishment and illiteracy continued to reign supreme.

The saltpan workers still depend on their acquaintance with truck drivers to provide water and transport during emergencies. Government tankers are irregular, they say, and individual families that procure potable water from private operators spend as much as Rs 2,000-Rs 3,000 a month. Not everybody can afford that.

Leelaben, a middle-aged woman working in the saltpans, said: "Sometimes the men have to pedal miles in search of a wet hole in a dry riverbed or a small breach in the lone pipeline that carries water from a borewell in Odhu village to a handful of saltpans not far from the Rann's periphery. We work like donkeys in the saltpans without a day off, for over eight months. We get to bathe every 15 days. That is the only luxury we can afford here."

An estimated 43,000 people -- saltpan workers, their families and dependants -- engage in salt farming during the September-May season in the Little Rann, living alongside the saltpans in conditions that can only be described as medieval.

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 aborigines used fire to send smoke signals!

Salt production in the Little Rann dates back 5,000 years. The British regulated salt-making and made Kharaghoda, a remote village on the periphery of the Little Rann, a hub of the salt trade. Local historian-writer Ambubhai Patel says: "Historical sources indicate that by the middle of the 19th century, British India derived 10% of its revenue from the salt monopoly. The saltpan workers of Kharaghoda and other villages on the periphery of the Little Rann were the unsung beasts of burden."

After Independence, domestic salt production was encouraged and in 1953, the country became self-sufficient. Today, India is the third largest producer of salt in the world; some 5 million tonnes of its annual production of 17 million tonnes are exported. All aspects of the salt industry are controlled by the salt commissioner from Jaipur, in Rajasthan.

The country owes this success primarily to centuries of hard slog by some 150,000-odd saltpan workers in coastal and desert regions of the country.

The Agariyas migrate to the desert every year from the 107 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 at the end of the season, the next year. The advance or loan money helps meet the running costs of manufacturing salt and afford the family a subsistence living in a temporary shelter on a plot adjoining the pans.

The family, including children, first construct a hut over pits dug in the mudflats to protect themselves from the wind and the sun. They then prepare 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 feet by 250 feet. Simultaneously, they dig a shallow well and, with the help of Rajkot pumps (a locally manufactured contraption that operates on crude oil), start drawing groundwater from saline aquifers into the first of the pans.

Once the salt-making process starts, the Agariyas cannot leave the saltpans unattended because it is essential that saline water keeps flowing without interruption to allow salt crystals to form. It is a series of chores that has remained unchanged for centuries; the brine is 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, workers regularly scrape the surfaces of the saltpans with heavy wooden rakes to even out the salt, which is slowly captured and dried in the heat, transforming the pans into hard fields of coarse salt ready for harvest.

The salt that the Agariyas produce is known locally as 'Badagara', simply meaning salt produced in the bada (big) agara (pan), an inland salt in large-grain crystal form, distinct from the marine salt produced in the coastal regions of nearby Saurashtra and the southern peninsula. Gujarat produces 70% of India's salt; inland salt from the Little Rann accounts for almost 40% of that.

Inland salt sells at Rs 3-5 a kg mainly in the markets of north India and Nepal, which does not produce any salt. But the Agariyas of Little Rann get only 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 the workers. There is a popular saying in this part of Gujarat: 'Debt is what an Agariya never fails to bring back home,' referring to the worker's return from the Little Rann to the village at the end of the salt manufacturing season.

"Last Janmasthami, we agreed to a price of Rs 15 per 100 kg. Right now, our salt is selling at Rs 45 in Patdi town market," Labhubhai Bababhai said. Labhubhai is from Kharaghoda, now a big village of 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 around 500 local women have lost their husbands at a relatively young age. The death rate here is unusually high, but hardly surprising considering a majority of the dead men are Agariyas.

Most saltpan workers are from the Chuvaliya Koli and dalit communities. Other backward communities like the Vaghris, Bharwads, Rabaris, Ahirs, Sipahis, Fakirs, and Muslims are also engaged in allied activities like transport, loading and unloading, grinding and packaging. But it is the low-caste Kolis and dalits who live and work in hazardous conditions, dominated and exploited for decades by the Barbas, a higher-caste community, who own the saltpans. Throughout their working lives -- they start at the young age of seven or eight years -- saltpan workers encounter serious physical and mental health hazards.

Working in extreme temperatures without any protective gear against the intense sun and the salt, many Agariyas suffer blindness and skin damage. Exposed parts of their body get covered in an abrasive coating of salt, drastically reducing their life expectancy. "Even a small cut takes months to heal," Labhubhai said. Lack of money means they cannot afford to buy rubber boots or gloves that would offer some protection to their ravaged limbs.

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 Agariyas, 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 warts. 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. Vitamin A deficiency, night blindness, tuberculosis, infant mortality and gynaecological problems are common."

The late Gujarati writer, Dilip Ranpara, who published a book on the exploitation and sufferings of saltpan workers in the early-90s, has described how an Agariya's hands and legs take more time to burn than his body on the funeral pyre because a lifetime spent working in salt causes them to harden and become nearly acid-proof! Though his book, Kali Majuri, Dholo Mithoo (Black Labour, White Salt), is often quoted by social activists at public and official fora, not many people are aware of this darker side of common salt.

Salt, an "essential item", may be a central subject under the seventh schedule of the Constitution, but the working conditions of workers also fall within the purview of state governments. The Centre set up three special committees in the years 1948, 1950 and 1958 to review the progress of the salt industry. It also passed the Salt Cess Act, 1953, which provided for the levy and collection of a cess on salt that would be utilised for labour welfare schemes and development work in the salt industry. In 1954-55, a five-year programme was prepared for development and welfare in the salt industry. A salt development fund was established in 1958, under the Act, to be operated by the Central Salt Board.

But, says a report prepared by the Union Ministry of Labour, "there is no clear separation of funds; as a result, administrative expenses constitute almost 80% of total expenditure. This, despite the fact that the Government of India gives budgetary support to the salt commissioner's office for its running. The salt cess, at Rs 3.50 per metric tonne, has remained unchanged over these years. It is applicable only to salt works of over 100 acres; it is half for those with more than 10 acres but less than 100 acres. Salt works up to 10 acres are exempt from the cess".

The report further points out that unlike welfare funds where, apart from welfare fund Acts there are separate Acts like the Beedi and Cigar Workers (Terms of Employment) Act 1966, there is no such Act to govern conditions of employment of saltpan workers. The Centre had formulated a code of principles under which assistance from the cess proceeds was to fund welfare works like water supply schemes, including provision of water coolers, storage tanks, water tankers mounted on trailers; construction of labour rest sheds, crèches, toilets; augmentation of medical facilities including conducting health camps; community centres and recreation facilities; educational facilities for the children of salt workers; labour housing, etc.

"However, it is observed that the organisation of the Central Salt Commission has generally been meeting the requirements of drinking water supply to some extent. For the other welfare measures, the salt workers have to depend on the governments of respective states. The thrust and major objective of the Central Salt Commission is to improve skills in the production of salt and its quality control," the report adds.

The government of Gujarat claims to run a group insurance scheme from 1993 that offers coverage to around 46,000 salt workers across the state. Under the scheme, workers are entitled to Rs 25,000 in case of accidental death or complete disability, and Rs 12,500 in case of partial disability. It also runs salt workers' welfare centres where activities such as primary education, primary healthcare, sports and cultural events are conducted. Financial assistance for the construction of pucca houses or temporary tent accommodation, and treatment of serious diseases, is also promised. But the implementation of these schemes is at best tardy, say the salt workers.

Thanks to the efforts of Ganatar, an Ahmedabad-based social change organisation, the Gujarat state government has, in recent years, taken some steps to make the saltpan workers' lives a little more bearable. "The government has sanctioned schools for the Agariya children, promised potable water in tankers in remote saltpans, a weekly medical van service, and a limited number of rubber boots," says Rupalben of Ganatar.

Ganatar has been educating the children of saltpan workers for over a decade now through a network of mobile Rann shalas (desert schools) that operate during the seasonal migration period starting October through to the month of May. Classes up to 7th grade are conducted as supplementary to the mainstream government schools running in the villages. Thus, students enrolled in village schools continue their respective grade education at the mobile schools when they migrate with their parents to the saltpans. And, at the end of the year, they appear for the annual examination at their respective village schools.

Before the mobile schools came into existence, the children of saltpan workers had to leave their schools in the village and accompany their parents to eventually join the swelling masses of child labourers being initiated into a life of backbreaking drudgery. "It was the success of the Rann shalas that enabled Ganatar to pursue the Gujarat government to replicate the model inside the Little Rann, besides other areas, for children of migrant communities in the state," Rupalben claims.

The Gujarat government set aside a grant of Rs 4.70 crore in 2006-07 for social organisations running schools on the lines of Ganatar's Rann shalas; last financial year, the amount was raised to Rs 11.50 crore. In 1996, around 100-odd students joined the first school started by Ganatar. Today, 10,000 children of migrants benefit from the Rann shala model. The state funds over 50 schools and 50 hostels for migrant children.

However, it's a case of too little, too late as thousands of young Agariyas have already been sucked into the vicious cycle of salt-making and are faced with a bleak future. The Little Rann has been declared a sanctuary by the Gujarat forest department as it is the habitat of a thriving population of the endangered Asiatic wild ass (Equus hemionus khur).

The first set of sanctuary notifications was issued on January 12, 1973, followed by a second notification in 1978. In early-1997, the state government set up an office to survey and settle the claims of traditional dwellers in the sanctuary area, in Surendranagar. Predictably, the saltpan workers have been up in arms ever since. An assemblage of NGOs led by Harinesh Pandya of Janpath and Sukhdev Patel of Ganatar is lobbying the state government to end the uncertainty over the workers' existence inside the Little Rann. Interestingly, while the state forest department has issued eviction notices to the salt workers, the state government has provided nearly 41,000 of them identity cards, certifying them as traditional saltpan workers.

The salt workers were finally issued eviction notices in 2007. But, sensing popular protest in an assembly election year, the state government, led by Gujarat 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. "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 because it would impact the wild ass' grazing area," says local activist Ishwarbhai Desai.

So far, the government continues to delay a mutually agreed settlement. The salt workers say that if given an option they would gladly give up salt-harvesting; anyway, they are treading a thin line for survival and will need more than just salt to sustain them in future. Some of them, like Kantibhai, feel their lot was better off under British rule. "From what we have heard our elders say, they (the British) took good care of our people. Those were glory days at Kharaghoda. The saltpan worker was king then."

Historian-journalist Ambubhai Patel agrees: "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 system whose remnants exist inside the Little Rann to this day."

Savshibhai took me to see another symbol of Kharaghoda's past glory -- Bulkley Market. This is a Gothic structure built in 1905 by a British collector of salt taxes called Mr Bulkley, who, according to the cornerstone, "interested himself greatly in the 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.

The saltpan workers of Kharaghoda dismissed the Agariya Kalyan Sammelan (conference for the welfare of salt-makers), organised by the state government in Patdi, in 2007, as a "political farce".

Chief Minister Narendra Modi had announced grand plans to develop the nearby Navlakhi port in Kutch, with a special jetty dedicated for salt export so as to fetch the best prices for salt workers in the Little Rann of Kutch. "The proposed port will cut 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. Besides, the government wanted to develop a Rann-based tourism plan," said a senior aide of the chief minister in Gandhinagar.

The state government also 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 percolate down to the salt workers. But one saltpan worker stated the real problem as he looked across the bountiful hot fields of salt: "What good are these grand promises when the government cannot provide us drinking water, medical care and education here?"

The saltpan workers, most of them illiterate, fail to comprehend such grand development initiatives. All they have known is a poverty-stricken existence in the wilderness. Savshibhai, my guide who started life as a child salt worker, said: "We are destined to spend our entire lives in the company of dogs, bicycles and pigeons -- the dogs are faithful companions and security, the bicycles the only means of transportation, and the presence of pigeons protects from death due to variable concentrations of carbon dioxide inside the saline aquifers."

As the unrelenting sun beat down on the parched desert, a small group of men gathered under a shed at the Shri Veer Vaccharaj Solanki temple. This is the centre of the Little Rann and a sacred place for the saltpan workers. Mythology has it that King Vaccharaj left his marriage ceremony halfway on hearing that the enemy had taken away cows belonging to his people for slaughter. "He saved the cows but died in battle. We expect our rulers to come to our rescue in similar fashion. But would they ever?" wondered Mahadevbhai, the temple priest.

Nobody had an answer. Outside, the desert was still and the afternoon heat felt unbearable...

InfoChange News & Features, April 2009