Scorching salt

As the world celebrates yet another Environment Day, groups of marginalized people in some part of the globe or the other get evicted from their traditional land and livelihood. They are pushed to the brink of tragedy in the name of conservation so that animals can survive. Why does it have to be so? Man vs animal or, man vs nature. People have to be placed at the centre if conservation has to make sense universally. What makes things even worse, is that these so-called protected zones allow commercial activities to go almost unchecked. On the eve of World Environment Day, ravleen kaur comes face to face with the twin predicament of the marginalized in the salt pans of Gujarat protecting the endangered wild ass has become a ruse to evict Agaria salt-makers. At the same time, the state government has looked askance at pollution by units of two major industrial groups which threatens local livelihoods

 
Last Updated: Sunday 07 June 2015

Scorching salt

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AGNIMIRH BASU


The earth is cracked and the horizon bare. The deathly silence is broken by the occasional whirring of crude-oil pumps. Women, going about their daily life in bright mirror-work lehangas, add a dash of colour to an otherwise arid background. This tough terrain has dominted 50-year-old Shantabhai Maganbhai Bamania's life since he was 10. Shantabhai is an Agaria, a salt worker. The Rann of Kutch in Gujarat is his home to him and his family for eight months a year, from September to April. The remaining four months they spend in Kharagoda. Not just Shantabhai, the Rann of Kutch is home to more than 100,000 workers like him for eight months a year, who come from villages 30 to 40 kms away.

A 2006 report of a Union ministry of environment and forests-World Bank project, Biodiversity Conservation and Rural Livelihood Improvement, notes that nearly 60 per cent Agarias live below the poverty line.Their livelihood has been under threat ever since the Little Rann of Kutch (the Rann is divided into the Little Rann and the Great Rann) was notified as a wildlife sanctuary in 1973 to protect the wild ass. In 2006, the salt workers were served eviction notices.

The saltmaking Agarias do not understand why they are being asked to go, leaving behind an occupation they have been involved in for centuries. Where is the conflict, they ask. Even forest officials are unable to show any evidence of conflict. According to the forest department's own census, the population of wild asses has gone up beyond what is called "the safe level to achieve the objective of conservation." Despite such a success story forest officials are rigid when it comes to the marginalised Agarias since the area has been declared a sanctuary there cannot be any human population there, say officials.

The Agarias' vulnerability stems from the fact that they have no land deeds. No survey has ever taken place in the Little Rann of Kutch since independence; it does not figure in government revenue records. Revenue department records in fact refer to the area as Survey Number Zero.

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In Survey Number Zero
During monsoon, water from the Arabian Sea floods the Rann converting it into a lake. In September, when the waters recede, it's time for Agarias from the 107 villages around the Little Rann to move in. Mud huts come up in Survey Number Zero, where Agarias stay till spring, making the Vadagara variety of salt--it has big crystals and is considered inferior to the powdered marine salt sold in most of urban India.

Vadagara is made from sub-soil brine. Agarias dig a 6-9 metre-deep well from where the brine is pumped out. This is then taken through channels to large flat pans. Getting these pans ready to receive the brine is tough work. Agarias stamp hard and level the earth with their bare feet. The pressure tightly packs the loose soil and ensures the brine does not seep back. "The initial layer of salt that is formed, once the brine evaporates, is scraped with heavy wooden rakes, locally known as gantaras. Some dry branches are thrown in, around which salt crystals form," says Shantabhai. Once the salt has been harvested it is sent to collection points. Here traders take over. These collection points are by the nearest railway station; in Shantabhai's case the salt harvest is despatched to Kharagoda railway station.

"The trader usually gives us a monthly advance of Rs 12,000 to Rs 14,000. This includes expenses for crude oil and spare parts which go up to Rs 12,000. The rest of the money goes in buying food," says Mahesh Godhabhai Gohil, an Agaria. "We come to the Rann with an advance and leave the place in debt," says he.

Not just debts, Agarias also leave with scars and blisters on their hands. Uninterrupted exposure to the sun causes eye and skin problems.

Salt and wild asses
Agarias use 3 per cent of the Wild Ass Sanctuary
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Stamping hard on the salt pans with bare feet leaves Agarias with blisters--it is only recently that some ngos have started providing them with gumboots. Wounds take a long time to heal because they are constantly rubbed with salt.

Low-profit activity
About 1 million tonnes of salt is produced in a year in the region. It is sent to up, mp, Chhattisgarh and Nepal. For every 100 kg of salt, the trader gives Rs 15 to the Agaria--seven paise per kg. Traders sell the salt at Rs 45 to Rs 60 per 100 kg--they spend about Rs 35 on cartage and iodinization.

Not just poor payment, declining groundwater has become a problem for the Agarias as well. "Salt pans were active upto April 2007. But this year, they had to be wound up in March because of very little groundwater. The average production from each pan was 1,000 tonnes about 10 years back. It is no more than 700 to 800 tonnes now," says Devibhai Dhamecha, naturalist and photographer, who also runs a tourist resort near the Little Rann.

"Making Vadagara salt is a low-profit activity. If electricity is provided inside the Little Rann, we will be able to compete with marine salt makers. Roads will also make our work profitable. But since the area has been declared a sanctuary no development work is possible here," says Ashok Bhai Patel, a trader from Kharagoda.

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The sanctuary imbroglio
According to a Gujarat forest department sponsored study conducted by the Gujarat Ecological Education and Research Foundation (geer), Ecological Study of the Wild Ass Sanctuary, the total area leased out for salt pans in 1995 was 13,357 ha, about 3 per cent of the sanctuary.

The report notes that the area under salt production went up from 6,948 hectares (ha) in 1982-84 to 13,357 ha in 1995. At the same time, the wild ass population also went up from 720 in a 1976 census to 3863 in 2004. The report says "a minimum population of about 2,500 wild asses in the area would be a safe level to achieve the objective of conservation."

"So where then is the conflict?" asks Harinesh Pandya, secretary of Agaria Heetrakshak Manch (ahrm), a forum that fights for the rights of Agarias. "The animals can often be found drinking water from the Agaria tanks. Never has a salt worker harmed a wild ass," says he.

The forest department agrees there has been a healthy increase in the wild ass population of the area. It ascribes the rise in the number of wild asses to good rainfall in the past six years. "Wild ass mating gets disturbed by movement of salt trucks," says M A Chawda, Divisional Forest Officer of Dhrangadra. This is a classic case of speaking through the hat. Mating and breeding of wild asses begin in April and extends up to October. Trucks move into the area only in March and April when the salt harvest is ready. "The geer report also suggests that there is no threat to wildlife from salt making. It only recommends the administration designate paths for trucks. It's a management problem, not an ecological one. Why punish Agarias if the government hasn't acted on this recommendation?" asks Vinay Mahajan of the Ahmedabad-based independent research institute, Sandarbh Development Studies.

What is indeed a cause for concern is that wild growth of weeds has reduced the food supply of the asses. Chawda claims that in 2007, more than 600 wild asses were found straying into revenue land. When villagers complain, the animals are pushed back into the sanctuary. Mahajan counters "The animals are moving out as there is less food in the Rann now, because 10 per cent of the sanctuary is covered by the invasive Prosopis Juliflora. But the department does not want to address this problem it created. All it can do is evict Agarias."

The government clearly follows a dual policy act tough with the poor and be soft towards the powerful. It wants the Agarias to vacate the three per cent sanctuary area used for salt production. On the other hand, proposals for an oil and gas pipeline, from Oil and Natural Gas Commission and Cairn Energy, are now with the government for consideration. This pipeline, if approved, will pass through the Little Rann. The Narmada canal, which too will pass through the sanctuary, has already been given the go-ahead.

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Truck movement in the Rann a management problem not an ecological one

The geer report states while the positive impact of the canal will be increase in water availability for wildlife the downside is that it will restrict the free movement of animals. The army had also leased more than 17,000 ha from the government for artillery practice. "This went on till 1999 and habitat in these areas has degraded," the geer report notes.

A piece of paper
The forest department often asserts that Agarias have no document to prove their claim over the Rann. But Pandya contends, "There is mention in documents of the colonial state of salt extraction in the Rann of Kutch." His organization has recently ferreted evidence from Mughal times that shows that salt-making in the Rann dates back to more than five centuries.

The government started making some moves to settle Agarias' land claims in 1997. Surendranagar's district collector issued a notice to Agarias to claim their entitlements in the sanctuary within two months. But the notice was sent in September when Agarias had left for the Rann, so they could not file claims. "The additional collector's office told us that it has received only 1,776 claims so far. But according to the Gujarat industries department report of 2006, more than 45,000 families are engaged in salt making in the sanctuary. How come only 1,776 claims were filed?" asks Pandya. "They said they came to each village and even issued notices to panchayats, but nobody came to our village," says Ambu Bhai Patel, a journalist in Patdi village. In December 2006, ahrm organized a meeting following which 4,800 Agarias filed their claims till June 2007. "We have also demanded that verification of rights be done through gram sabhas," Pandya says. Surendranagar's revenue settlement officer was supposed to submit his report on the claims in March 2008 when he was transferred. J G Hingarajiya, the new officer refused to take Down To Earth's call saying he was not on the said post.

The forest department on its part claims that it has tied up with the World Bank to make the Little Rann a National Biosphere Reserve. "The initiative would provide rural employment through biodiversity conservation. They would be given jobs as guides and drivers and women will be trained in tailoring," Chawda says. But Agarias do not want such welfare schemes. "Why should we take favours when we know how to earn a living from our own land?" Shantabhai asserts.

Despite a hard life, Agarias do not want to give up salt making. "Here we have our freedom. There is no crime and not many wordly troubles. We are on our own unlike a construction labourer and at the end of a hot day, we at least get our meals. When there will be no more brine we will have no option but move out. But why should we leave right now?" asks Mangabhai.

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