October 22, 2021

A member of the Agariya community carrying Dantala, a large tool to scrape salt in the pans. Photo by Dhvanit Pandya/AHRM.

The marginalised community of Agariyas, the salt workers in the Little Rann region of Gujarat, produce 30 percent of India’s inland salt. They live in dire circumstances as the state government refuses to recognise their legal rights

ON THE last Monday of the monsoon month in September 2021, 48-year-old Gunawant Ramji Koli left for the Little Rann of Kutch (LRK) to place idols in a mud puddle. During the monsoon, waters of 11 rivers and many nullahs drain here and mix with the tidal waves from the Gulf of Kutch. The water recedes in September-October. Then, the puddle in which Koli placed the idols would have massive saltpans around it.

Koli belongs to Agariya, a traditional salt-making community in the Western Indian state of Gujarat. The Agariyas, like farmers, pray to their gods every year through such rituals for a bumper harvest and for no natural calamities. Koli’s prayers now include protection from man-made calamities too. Surplus water from the Narmada canals floods their saltpans, destroying salt worth several hundred thousand rupees.

The 60,000-odd Agariyas at the Little Rann produce 30 percent of India’s inland salt but they have no legal rights over the land on which they have been making salt for centuries.

The LRK is an area where no human being stays. Agariyas make salt in three percent of this land but the 2011 census indicates that a population of 1.75 million from nearby areas is dependent on it – the fishers, truck drivers, labour to load salt and packaging units.

The 5,000 square kilometres region was notified as a Wild Ass Sanctuary (WAS) in 1973, to protect the equine species. It is part of India’s largest National Biosphere Reserve and one of the few nesting sites for lesser flamingos and the endemic prawn species, Metapenaeus kutchensis. It attracts endangered cranes and other migratory birds and supports unique salt-tolerant plants and grasses.

An Agariya woman transferring salt. Photo by Dhvanit Pandya/AHRM.

But now an ambitious water infrastructure project threatens to permanently wipe out their traditional occupation and way of life.

Called Rann Sarovar, the project aims to turn Little Rann into the biggest freshwater lake in Asia. In 2019, Jaisukh Patel, who is the managing director of the Ajanta-Oreva Group that makes the Ajanta brand of wall clocks, had proposed to the central government, to build a freshwater lake in the LRK called Rann Sarovar. The idea was to dam the creek to prevent seawater from entering the Rann, creating a vast freshwater lake that can be used around the year.

The central government referred the proposal to the Central Water Commission (CWC) in early 2019. After a series of meetings with the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) and the Central Ground Water Board (CGWB), the CWC recommended that the Gujarat government should form a committee to study the proposal, as water is a state subject. The state and union governments are currently studying the proposal.

“This blockage of seawater and movement of freshwater will in the long term, push the sub-surface salinity towards the sea and improve groundwater recharge,” Patel told Mongabay-India.

The project, however, has invited criticism on account of technical viability, socio-economic and ecological impact. The CSIR said that the project is a “huge techno-economical challenge” because the LRK has an arid climate and is seismically active. “Extensive evaporation from the lake will lead to humidity that will destroy the cumin, castor and cotton crop that grow in the dry Saurashtra region,” Bharat Somera, an Agariya, associated with the NGO Agariya Hitrakshak Manch (AHRM) that works for the rights of salt workers, told Mongabay-India.

Asked about the livelihood of the Agariyas, Patel said that he has proposed to the government that the Agariyas should be given 10 acres of agricultural land where they can be rehabilitated. “Inland salt making is a dying profession. The Agariyas are the poorest people in Gujarat. I have proposed that they be employed to run the water-sports and boats when the Rann Sarovar comes up,” he said.

Presently, Gujarat’s water resources department has asked the Centre for Salt and Marine Chemical Research Institute (CSMCRI), Bhavnagar to study how long will it take to remove the inherent salinity of soil in the LRK.

“If it takes 2-3 years to turn the saline water fresh, it is worth it, but if it takes 20 years, then we can’t spend public money on it. Also, the government has to consider the sanctuary and livelihoods issue,” M.K. Jadhav, Secretary, Water Resources, Gujarat government told Mongabay-India.

Unique landscape and livelihoods threatened by man-made floods

The Agariyas can obtain rights through India’s wildlife protection law and the landmark Forest Rights Act (FRA) of 2006. But the local community members allege that the state has either slowed down or rejected their claims under these laws. “One can bear the wrath of nature, but the indifference of the administration is really exhausting, for it refuses to recognise our existence,” Koli, a third-generation Agariya, told Mongabay-India.

Once the water recedes in winters, it leaves behind an expanse of cracked land. This is when Agariya families from 102 villages within 7-45 kms of the LRK migrate inside with their water pumps, tools and household stuff and set up temporary huts for the next eight months. They pump sub-soil brine from underground wells and spread it on large prepared pans called ‘Agar’. Evaporation leaves behind white crystals of salt.

The makeshift hut of salt workers for eight months. It is made with jute sacks, plastic sheets, bamboo and husk. Photo by Dhvanit Pandya/AHRM.

“Except pumping brine from the wells, everything is done manually. From extreme winter to blazing sun, we bear it all. And end up with grave injuries by constantly handling salt,” said Dhana Koli from Patdi, whose saltpans are 35 kms from his village. They earn about Rs. 0.30 for a kilogram of salt that is later sold at a premium in the retail market at about Rs. 20 per kilogram, he said. However, the pata (pans) are under threat from man-made floods.

“It takes 40-45 days to prepare a pata (pan) so that when we spread brine on it, it does not seep into the ground. We trample upon it until it hardens. All this effort is reduced to zilch in a day when the Narmada waters flood the pans like it happened this January. Sometimes, the water is released in May, flushing down the entire harvested salt,” laments Sehdev Bhai, from Kudagam village in Kharagoda. He lost salt worth Rs. 80,000 this year.

“Every year, there is a loss of Rs. 20-25 million (Rs. 2-2.5 crores) due to these manmade floods,” salt trader Hingor Rabari, who is also the president of the Kharagoda Iodised Salt Manufacturers Association, told Mongabay-India.

Somera, of Agariya Hitrakshak Manch, observed that the instances of the Narmada canals releasing surplus water have gone up since 2015. “In 2017, 136 Agariya families were affected when they released water from Madia canal, 10 kms from the LRK. We conducted a survey and pleaded for compensation to the Sardar Sarovar Narmada Nigam Ltd (SSNNL) in Gandhinagar. Their team visited the LRK and approved a compensation of Rs. nine million (Rs. 90 lakhs). But it has not been disbursed yet. Every time it happens, officials visit, appeals are made, but nothing happens,” Somera told Mongabay-India.

In 2015, the command area of the Narmada dam’s canals got completed. Since the LRK is the lowest point in the topography, excess water drains here. “Low-quality material has been used to construct the canals and their capacity is also lower than the amount of water released. Besides affecting the saltpans, this is gross wastage of the Narmada waters,” Rabari clarified.

However, Vivek Kapadia, director of the Sardar Sarvovar Narmada Nigam Limited (SSNNL), one of the largest water resources project in India, said that good rainfall in the last seven years and the completed drainage network of the Narmada river are only contributory reasons for flooding.

“The three fringe channels from north Gujarat, Saurashtra and Wagar are natural formations along the LRK that would carry water from the river catchments to the Gulf of Kutch. But they are choked up now due to siltation, leading to the horizontal spread of water towards saltpans. The solution lies in excavating these channels,” he said. But Kapadia’s report on the issue is yet to be accepted by the state government.

During the four months of monsoon, fisher folks catch ginger prawn in the LRK. Photo by Dhvanit Pandya/AHRM.

About compensation to Agariyas, Kapadia told Mongabay-India that, “Compensation is a revenue matter and the Agariyas stay in a wildlife sanctuary and don’t even have a lease to make salt. It is legally difficult to establish their right to compensation.”

Rights of community ignored

According to the AHRM estimates, the Tauktae cyclone in May 2021 washed off about a million tonnes of salt worth Rs. 360 million (Rs. 36 crores). The administration did not conduct a survey or announce compensation.

“When natural disasters happen, farmers can claim insurance/compensation for crop loss. Not Agariyas, because salt making is considered illegal. No bank gives them loans because the Agariyas have no documentary evidence of tenure. Even when the Agariyas made the environment-friendly move of using the solar pumps instead of crude oil to pump brine, they did not get any loans from banks,” said Harinesh Pandya, managing trustee of the AHRM.

In 1948, in order to ensure self-sufficiency in salt, the newly independent Indian government allowed salt farmers operating on less than 10 acres to produce salt without any licenses. “Such salt producers came to be known as ‘unrecognised’. Most of the Agariyas in the LRK fall under this category, and hence have no documentary evidence of their salt farms,” according to Yet to be Freed, a 2008 study on the Agariya salt workers by Charul Bharwada and Vinay Mahajan.

In 1973, the Wild Ass Sanctuary was notified under the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972. Under the law, after the first notification for a wildlife sanctuary, the state forest department begins a settlement process to identify land rights of individuals and communities within sanctuary limits. The settlement process for the WAS began only 24 years later in 1997. The government came out with a notification to file land claims within 60 days.

But this was not publicised enough so most Agariyas did not file claims, alleged Pandya. The government also did not conduct any survey to get the exact number of Agariyas dependent on the Rann, he said.

In November 2006, in the middle of the salt season, the Agariyas received eviction notices from the state’s forest department, stating that their claims had been rejected. “Most Agariyas were shocked and clueless because they had never made claims in the first place,” said Pandya.

The AHRM conducted radio programmes to inform people about their rights. New claims were filed, but the forest department rejected them on the ground that the time period was over.

Now, as of September 2021, the settlement is still not complete, 48 years after the sanctuary was first notified. Earlier, the government used to issue short-term leases to Agariyas and renew them. They stopped renewing these after the settlement process began.

An Agariya woman working in the salt pan with safety gears like shades, gum boots and caps provided by the NGOs to avoid the harsh sun and salt water. Photo by Dhvanit Pandya/AHRM.

“As per the procedure, we cannot renew the lease for Agariyas till the settlement is done but we are not stopping them from earning their livelihood. The process has taken a long time because the LRK fell within the jurisdiction of five districts earlier, making coordination difficult,” said Prabhnesh Dave, Deputy Conservator of Forests, WAS. The LRK now falls in the Kutch district of Gujarat.

“Since then, we have been living in constant fear. The forest department says that the Wild Ass is in danger because of Agariyas and wants to evict us but their own numbers show that the wild ass population has gone up from 700 in 1976 to 5,000 now,” claimed Tejal Makwana, an Agariya from Patdi village.

A case for the community to claim rights

The AHRM and Agariyas have also tried to obtain rights under the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest rights) Act, 2006 (FRA) under a provision that allows communities to claim “seasonal community rights.” Agariyas are categorised as a de-notified nomadic tribe but have been living in the Rann for more than 75 years so can qualify as “other traditional forest dwellers” under the FRA.

The AHRM has been trying for a Forest Rights Committee at the gram sabha (village council) level for filing claims but it hasn’t happened so far. In 2017, the state-level monitoring committee on FRA said that the FRA is not applicable to the WAS.

An official in the Gujarat Tribal Development Commissioner’s office, while wishing anonymity, told Mongabay-India that the matter was dismissed on two grounds: ownership of land in WAS is still a contentious issue between the revenue and the forest department and that salt does not count as forest produce but a mineral.

The children of the Agariya community playing with a barrel of oil in the cracked topography of the Little Rann. Photo by Dhvanit Pandya/AHRM.

The children of the Agariya community playing with a barrel of oil in the cracked topography of the Little Rann. Photo by Dhvanit Pandya/AHRM.

However, the experts working on the interpretations of the FRA claim it is incorrect.

“[Under the FRA], the community can access any resource in the forest, including water, fish, place of worship, etc. In this case, the Agariyas hold seasonal use of water in the desert to farm salt,” Pushpanjali Satpathy, a forest rights expert from Vasundhara, an NGO based in Odisha, told Mongabay-India.

According to the FRA, rights can be recognised on any ‘forest land’, which includes sanctuaries, and does not depend on the land’s ownership by the revenue or forest department. “In March 2007, the additional collector, WAS granted fishing rights to nearby villagers during the monsoon recognising their customary right. If fishing rights can be granted, why not the right to make salt by the traditional small producers?” questioned the Bharwada and Mahajan report.

Formal recognition of rights is crucial as it can help direct social welfare schemes towards the Agariyas. “They can package their salt better and market it through the Tribal department offshoots like TRIFED,” says Satpathy.

Research for this story was facilitated by Land Conflict Watch (LCW) with support of the Internews Earth Journalism Network. This story was first published on Mongabay India