Saturday, December 8, 2012
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Migrant salt pan workers in Gujarat have to buy water at exorbitant rates as govt routinely fails to keep its promise
Despite working in salty water through out the day, Agariyas bath once in 8-10 days due to water scarcity.

Whatever statistics and reports may say about Gujarat’s development, Agariyas (traditional salt workers), will surely be poorer this year, as they are forced to take more loans to purchase water. Though it is a duty of the government to supply basic services to its citizens, Agariyas don't seem to figure in this plan. In fact, the Water Supply and Sewerage Management Board claims that the Agariyas earn enough from salt production and should make their own arrangements. This despite the fact that workers make just 25 paisa for a kg of salt which is sold for Rs 15 in the market.

Every year, around 10,000 Agariya families migrate from four districts (Surendrangar, Patan, Rajkot, Kutch) to little Rann of Kutch. Agariyas live in desert for about eight months (usually September to March) in a temporary make-shift houses made out of mud and bamboo. There, they dig wells to draw the briny groundwater to the surface and then rely on evaporation to leave the white crystals. Little Rann of Kutch is a 5,183 sq.km land mass having dual characteristics of saline desert and wetland which produces more than 25 per cent of India's total salt.

Agariyas live in desert for about eight months (usually September to March) in a temporary make-shift houses made out of mud and bamboo. There, they dig wells to draw the briny groundwater to the surface and then rely on evaporation to leave the white crystals.

Since Agariyas have to go deep inside the desert to get salt, the nearest village is 25-35 km far. Agariyas can bath only once in 8-10 days leading to health ailments. For the records, water at Little Rann of Kutch has 15 degree salinity making it five times more saline than sea water. For last two years government tankers have stopped supplying water forcing the families to spend as much as Rs 1,200 a month to procure water from private operators.

Exploited by traders and middlemen, the self-employed Agariyas make as low as 25 paisa a kg from the salt they produce which forces the workers to take loans to meet their daily needs of water, grocery and fuel for operating water pumps. In the present circumstances, it seems they are only going to make enough for daily needs as Rs 6,000-7,000 profit they earn will be spent on procuring water.

Exploited by traders and middlemen, the self-employed Agariyas make as low as 25 paisa a kg from the salt they produce which forces them to take loans to meet their daily needs of water, grocery and fuel for operating water pumps. 

A study done by the Center for Economic and Social Studies, Hyderabad, showed that 75.76 per cent of the traditional Agariyas fall into deprived category when they are evaluated through 15 indicators such as food intake, health expenses, debt, land holding, fuel used, education status etc. Around  80 per cent of them are landless in their villages and have no alternative livelihood. However, that does not seem to cut much ice with the office of the Executive Engineer, Water Supply and Sewerage Management Board, Radhanpur, which made a false claim in its action plan for 2011-12 that water was being regularly supplied to the 6,000 workers who migrated from Patan Santalpur area by their employers. The fact that Agariyas are self employed and nobody can own the salt units in a desert (a default government-Sanctuary land) seems to have been lost to the officials.

Before migrating to the desert area this year, the Agariya Heetrakshak Manch, a group of salt workers, wrote to the water supplies department requesting necessary arrangements. However, officers gave varied replies at different points of time, the recent being imposition of the election code of conduct notwithstanding the fact that provision of basic amenities is not a misconduct. When asked to give it in writing so that a waiver could be sought from the election commission, it was denied.

Water supply was denied to Agariyas on the pretext that election code of conduct was in force notwithstanding the fact that provision of basic amenities is not a misconduct. When asked to give it in writing so that a waiver could be sought from the election commission, it was denied. 

When information was sought under the Right to Information (RTI) Act, the Board replied that in the year 2009-10, Rs 25.97 lakh was spent on water supply through tankers but no fund was allocated in 2010-11. In 2011-12, Rs 25.48 lakh has been allocated but not a penny has been spent till now due to procedural delays. When asked about the difficulties being faced by the Agariyas, the office said salt unit owners should supply water.

We must refer here to a 2005 affidavit filed by the Gujarat government in reply to a writ petition in the Supreme Court assuring that water, health and educational facilities will be provided to the salt workers. However, going by the current state of affairs it is evident that such claims by the administration should be taken not with a pinch but a fistful of salt.

Pankti Jog is an advocacy coordinator for Janpath, a group working with community of salt pan workers

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