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Renewed hope for Gujarat’s salt pan workers as eviction threat eases in Little Rann

Sep 12, 2023 05:02 PM IST

The Gujarat government on September 4 decided to permit salt pan workers holding leases up to 10 acres to continue their age-old tradition of salt production in the Little Rann of Kutch

The Agariya community (salt-pan workers) in Gujarat, who had been living under the shadow of impending eviction for the last few months, heaved a huge sigh of relief on September 4 as the state government decided to permit salt pan workers holding leases up to 10 acres to continue their age-old tradition of salt production in the Little Rann of Kutch (LRK).

The Gujarat forest department in February this year sent eviction notices to the salt pan workers in Little Rann of Kutch saying that the region is a Wild Ass Sanctuary and the salt-making activity there was illegal. (HT Photo)
The Gujarat forest department in February this year sent eviction notices to the salt pan workers in Little Rann of Kutch saying that the region is a Wild Ass Sanctuary and the salt-making activity there was illegal. (HT Photo)

These workers, often marginalised and economically vulnerable, had in February this year received eviction notices from the forest department that could upend their lives and disrupt an industry that has been an integral part of Gujarat’s economy for centuries. The LRK region is declared as a Wild Ass Sanctuary and the salt-making activity by Agariyas was termed illegal, as per the earlier notice.

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The February letter said that illegal encroachments by new salt farms in recent years needs to be immediately stopped. Also, all the Agariyas whose rights are not recognised under an official survey and its settlement process would be evicted. There were less than 600 Agariyas as per the government records.

The LRK land remained un-surveyed since independence and hence was allotted single survey number ‘Zero’. The total areas of the Wild Ass Sanctuary as per notifications of 1973 and 1978 is 4,952.81 sq km, which is 4,95,281 hectares. The population of Wild Ass was around 700 when the sanctuary was declared, and they have steadily risen to over 6,000 today.

“The latest notification has given a fresh lease of life to at least 6,000-7,000 Agariya families in LRK who have been making salt as per traditional methods. On September 4, the salt pan workers had a meeting with senior officials of the state government where we were assured that the interests of the Agariyas will be taken care of,” said Pankti Jog, an activist at Agariya Hitrakshak Manch, a collective group of salt-pan workers in LRK.

A senior government official said that a meeting of MLAs including Kantibhai Amrutiya of Morbi, Lanvingji Solanki of Radhanpur, PK Parmar of Dasada and Kirit Patel of Patan was held with chief minister Bhupendra Patel to try and work out a solution for the benefit of Agariyas, following which the notification was issued by the forest department.

HT has seen a copy of the notification issued by the forest department on September 4, which stipulates that Agariyas possessing plots of less than 10 acres will be permitted to enter the vast desert expanse for their salt-making activities.

Typically, the Agariyas commence their desert operations on September 1. However, this year, their plans were abruptly thwarted as the State Reserve Police (SRP) was deployed prior to that, preventing their entry due to the looming eviction notice, according to Jog.

“Following the February letter, the forest department officials clamped down on the Agariya community in the Little Rann, breaking down solar panels, their stands and controllers of over 50 Agariyas. On the one hand, the government introduces schemes for the Agariyas like solar subsidy and on the other hand they restrict their entry in LRK,” said Jog.

The LRK has dual characteristics — that of a wetland and a desert. From June to September, the entire desert gets submerged in rainwater as well as seawater, halting all salt-making activities here. Fishing activity is carried out during these four months.

Rajubhai Kansagara, a 43-year-old Agariya from Kharaghoda Rann, said that merchants had been hesitant to establish a fixed price per tonne of salt for this season in the Little Rann of Kutch, primarily because of the looming eviction notice. Additionally, people refrained from making investments and extending loans due to the uncertainty created by the eviction notice, he remarked.

He said that more than 7,000 would enter LRK over the next 10-15 days.

The Little Rann of Kutch stands as a producer of approximately 60 lakh tonnes of salt annually. What sets apart the Vadagara (crystal) salt, harvested within this arid expanse, is its unique origin—it emerges from the briny waters hidden beneath the desert’s surface. A remarkable aspect of this salt production is that it adheres to traditional, chemical-free methods, relying entirely on skilled hands. The Agariya community dedicates eight months of the year to extracting and crafting these pristine, sizable salt crystals, with many adopting sustainable practices like harnessing solar energy.

Switch to solar energy

“Solar technology has brought a glow to our lives. Five years ago, we were leading an impoverished life, caught in a debt trap for generations. People were leaving this business as there was no money to make. Today the situation has changed, more people are joining this traditional salt making business,” said Kansagara who lives in a makeshift house with his family of four members in the desert. His two sons live in a village on the periphery of the desert. One of them works with a bank while another has a government job, he added.

Kansagara, who saved 3 lakh last salt-making season after making a switch from costly diesel, hopes to earn about 7-8 lakh this time around. In the last three years, after he made the switch to solar from diesel, he has purchased two pre-owned trucks and two pre-owned tanker trucks for filling liquid.

Last salt-making season, Kansagara produced 2,000 tonnes of salt and sold at around 520 per tonne. This is more than double the price at which he had sold in 2018 when he produced salt using only diesel. Before 2018, Kansagara says he barely managed to make money and was caught in a web of indebtedness.

Earlier he used to harvest one ‘Patta’ or saltpan that produced about 500-600 tonnes but last season he harvested four ‘Pattas’ due to solar power.

The process in the LRK involves using diesel pumps to draw brine out of the ground and spread it in salt pans to enable the sun to evaporate the water and produce salt.

A bountiful harvest of inland salt backed by a rise in demand from the chemical sector that has seen a revival post Covid downfall, the Agariyas are reaping the benefits of the switch to renewable energy from costly diesel in this harsh desert.

In the last five years, more than 5,000-5,500 solar panels have been installed for salt production, covering over 50% of total 8,000 families living here currently, who make LRK their temporary homes for about eight months. From buying tractors and trucks to investing in gold, the Agariyas have seen their economic situation improving because of solar.

Agariyas, a de-notified tribe, earlier got less than 2% of the final price paid by the domestic users. The reason for this exploitation by traders and others was that salt making is considered illegal here as it falls in a protected sanctuary area that is the only natural abode for the Indian Wild Ass (Equus hemionus Khur). Hence availing finance was a challenge.

In 2017, the Gujarat Industries Department came up with an 80 per cent subsidy scheme for solar pumps for Agariyas. A back-end subsidy requires the salt-makers to buy a solar pump and then apply to the government for a subsidy. The cost of a solar panels kit with 3 KV power is about 1.8 lakh while for 5 KV power, it is about 2.25 lakh.

More than 4,000 Agariyas have availed themselves of the government scheme while many including Kansagara have bought installed solar panels by directly purchasing at market rates.

This clean energy option, away from the grid-connected electricity, is however providing a breakthrough for hundreds of impoverished Agariyas in LRK, giving them better livelihood.

Before the state government scheme, NGOs like Ahmedabad based Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) and Vikas Centre for Development (VCD) worked with Agariyas and helped them install solar pumps by devising easy finance schemes. Both SEWA and Vikas would have helped install at least 1,000 solar pumps in the region.

On February 6, former US secretary of state Hillary Clinton announced a Global Climate Resilience Fund of USD 50 million dollars for women to fight climate change in association with the SEWA foundation.

Clinton visited salt pan workers in the LRK near Kuda village in Gujarat’s Surendranagar district and learnt from them the process of salt production and hardships faced by them. “The fund will empower women and communities to fight climate change and help provide new livelihood resources and education,” she said addressing the salt pan workers.

“There has been a drastic change in five years and the reason for this is solar energy. The quality of yield has improved, salt farmers can take multiple crops in a season with better biproduct recovery. Their requirement for working capital has come down drastically. Today, Agariya women are buying gold ornaments, renovating their houses in the villages, sending their children for higher studies to city areas and even inviting DJs for wedding of their children,” said Harinesh Pandya, managing trustee of NGO Agariya Heet-Rakshak Samiti, which works in the LRK and has about 6,000 Agariyas as its members.

While a major part of LRK falls in Surendranagar district of Saurashtra, it covers five districts including Kutch, Patan, Morbi and Banaskantha with more than 250 villages on its periphery.

Earlier, the Agariyas used to spend 50-70% of their annual income procuring diesel for each salt production season. By using a hybrid system based on solar and diesel, purchased on loans, they can increase their annual net income to 35,000-50,000 per saltpan. The diesel pumps are used mainly in the evening after the sunset.

Once the equipment loan is fully paid off, annual net income can increase 1 to 1.5 lakh, depending on the price and quality of salt. Also, by installing a solar pump with higher power, an Agariya can run multiple salt pans. Also using solar reduces other costs including wear and tear and the cost of lubricants.

Sixty-year-old Devabhai Savadiya, who was born in the LRK and represents the fourth generation of salt makers here, switched from diesel to solar four years ago to avail government subsidy.

“I had a loan of 1.25 lakh then and we hardly managed to save anything except taking care of our expenses while living in the LRK for eight months. For the remaining four months we went back to our village and worked as farm labourers or took up some other odd jobs. I produced 2,000 tonnes in the last season and managed to earn 2 lakh. I have repaid all my loans,” said Savadiya who lives with a family of four in a makeshift house in Fatehpur Rann area of LRK.

The price of salt produced by the Agariyas is fixed ahead of the start of salt-making season in most cases, but in some cases, they are dependent on the market movement and decided towards the end.

Lakhabhai Jedani, who had given up salt-making since 2001 and worked as a farm labourer in a village in Surendranagar district, last year returned to LRK to make a living by producing salt using the clean energy option. “I have a family of fifteen and I find it difficult to support them. I belong to family of traditional salt makers and know how to make salt so I have returned to LRK for better prospects using solar,” he said.

There is a rush in LRK in the last few years with more people joining the profession. Also, there is a lot of demand from industrial chemical units, many of which have come up near LRK in the last few years. The Agariyas can also earn 20,000- 30,000 and more by selling the huge quantity of water that is left behind after making salt to the industries.

“Four to five years ago there were about 5,000 Agariya families and their population kept floating. Today it has gone up to 8,000 families. The Agariyas who earned 150-200 per tonne of salt earlier, now earn upto 600-700 per tonne,” Bharat Somera, a salt pan worker and a member of Agariya Hitrakshak Manch.

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