Ahmedabad: The salt pan workers in Gujarat, locally known as agariyas, have to work in one of the harshest environments to eke out a living by battling several basic issues, and the Congress’s poll promise of improving their condition can just give hope for a better future to members of this marginalised section of the society.
The agariya families toil away in remote salt pans in unfavourable weather conditions of the Little Rann of Kutch (LRK), located in the north of Gujarat, for eight months a year by staying in makeshift huts to harvest salt. During this period, they are virtually cut off from the mainstream, as they stay 30 to 50 kms away from human habitats.
Over the past few years, the state government introduced several schemes for the welfare of the salt pan workers. But leaders and activists from the community feel these programmes have not helped the agariyas much and their condition has remained largely unchanged as they still have to fight for their basic rights, including health care and education.
They now hope that whichever party comes to power in Gujarat after the next month’s Assembly elections, takes steps for improving their living conditions. The opposition Congress has prominently mentioned agariyas in its poll manifesto and has promised to make their lives better if it comes to power in the state, while the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) assures to bring more funds for the uplift of the community.
Gujarat is the largest salt maker state of India and accounts for more than 75 per cent of the total output of this essential kitchen ingredient. Last year, nearly 41 lakh metric tonnes of salt was produced in the LRK, a desert spread across 5,000 sq km and major part of it falls in Surendranagar district.
The LRK was declared as a Wild Ass Sanctuary nearly 50 years back, which added to the woes of these traditional workers as they became more vulnerable in the absence of any land deeds.
As part of his poll campaign in Gujarat for the 2014 general elections, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi had interacted with salt pan workers of Gujarat to understand their problems.
Since then, several government schemes were introduced for the welfare of the community, including 80 per cent subsidy on buying solar-powered pumps and permanent deployment of modified buses, which were discarded by the state transport department, to be used as classrooms in the desert.
“In 2017, the Gujarat government came up with a scheme wherein solar-powered pumps were given at 80 per cent subsidised rate. On an average, one horsepower pump of Rs 1 lakh would cost agariyas Rs 20,000. This scheme brought many agariyas out of debt and extreme poverty as they saved fuel cost, which was nearly 70 per cent of the total production cost,” said activist Harinesh Pandya, who is president of NGO ‘Agariya Hit Rakshak Manch’.
To quench the thirst of salt pan workers, water tankers are sent inside the desert by the government, he said, adding that medical van having a doctor and a nurse also visit designated spots.
“Old and discarded buses were modified into smart classrooms and deployed permanently inside the desert at 43 locations to provide education to children from the community studying in Class 1 to 8. Government teachers are sent daily from the villages to take classes and even exams for eight months,” said Pandya.
During four months of monsoon starting June, agariyas stay in their villages located on the periphery of the desert. Eighty per cent of the salt pan workers belong to the ‘Chuvaliya Koli’ community, a de-notified tribe (DNT).
According to Pandya, nearly 10,000 agariya families, comprising nearly 40,000 members, are involved in salt harvesting in the LRK. Most of these families belong to Patdi and Dhrangadhra talukas of Surendranagar district, while others belong to Banaskantha, Patan, Morbi and Kutch district. However, leaders from the community feel that despite the introduction of various schemes over the years, the salt pan workers’ condition has not improved much.
“Health van service is not at all regular and does not cover each spot. We still face acute shortage of water because government-hired tankers fail to cover all the families in time. Even the buses being used as classrooms are just for show because one teacher can’t teach all the students of Class 1 to 8 at once,” said Chakuji Thakor, an agariya leader.
“Since LRK is a sanctuary and the government has stopped giving us the land on lease long back, banks do not give us loans because we don’t have the leased land to show. As a result, we have to sell our harvest in advance at a lower price to those who lend us capital to start our work every year,” he added.
Thakor said that the members of the community feel that after the next month’s Gujarat elections their condition will change positively and they will not have to fight for basic issues any more, irrespective of which party comes to power.
Kharaghoda-based activist Ambubhai Patel said the salt pan workers do not have any legal backing because the area where they harvest salt is a protected sanctuary and the government has stopped issuing leases many years ago.
In its manifesto for the upcoming Assembly polls, the Congress has promised that the party, if voted to power, will extend benefits of all the schemes meant for the unorganised workers to agariyas.
“We have promised that we will make it easier for agariyas to get permission for creating salt pans in the protected areas of the Wild Ass Sanctuary. Congress will also build houses and schools for salt pan workers. For better connectivity, we will also install mobile towers,” said Gujarat Congress spokesperson Manish Doshi.
Other promises include RO kiosks for providing drinking water to salt-pan workers in the desert and Rs 5 lakh accident insurance cover and free treatment up to Rs 10 lakh at any government hospital. BJP’s candidate for Dhrangadhra seat, Prakash Varmora, said he will try to get maximum funds from various sources for the overall uplift of salt pan workers and their families.
“The BJP government has already made a separate board for DNTs. I will try to make sure that the grant is used for salt pan workers too. I will also try to channelise the funds of major voluntary organisations for their development,” he said.