FOR more than 40,000 inland salt workers of the Little Rann of Kutch, living on the edge is a way of life. Here the sounds of Pakistan cackle with clarity over the rundown transistors; here the arid Rann inches them out when the monsoon pushes the relentless sea in; here their vision of freedom began with a handful of salt—and ended with it.
Here, among the many things unchanged in the wastelands of Surendranagar, Mehsana, Banaskantha, Rajkot and Kutch, are the lyrics of an old folk song. A bereft bride mourns: "O mother, why did you give me in marriage to an 'agario agnani' (ignorant salt worker). He digs a well and whiles away his time. He does not oil his hair and breaks the comb everyday...." The salt worker seems unmoved. In this vast expanse, wells are still being dug. Combs are still being broken by salt-infested hair. The salt worker hasn't been able to rise above his ignorance. From October to May, the agaria family members take turns at "whiling time"—pumping out brine, charting channels to let flow the liquid from one pan to another, raking through the crystalline solution and finally sifting it out.
In this unforgiving terrain, home for the backward Thakur-Patel agaria comprises a flimsy temporary dwelling which has a few vessels, a 'razai', earthen pots filled with water sparingly spent—and in the case of a fortunate few, a battered bicycle to pedal 25 km into the nearest town. Ladling out sand-dotted khichdi, standard fare twice a day, Jyotsnaben laments, "our homes in the village are no better." Admits Ashok Mehta, additional collector of Surendranagar: "You could say that most of them are way below the poverty line."
Then again, things have changed. In the '50s, diesel pumps replaced bullock carts to draw brine and remain in use to this day. Moneylenders have given way to equally wily salt merchants—who do not charge an exorbitant interest but have evolved a system whereby the unsuspecting salt worker is a contracted slave for life. Dashrathbhai, a fifth generation salt worker from Kuda village, is one among 4,000 workers engaged in the pursuit of futility. He has not seen a school and is not sure if his children will. As promised by the 'Agari Kalyan Yogna', drinking water, rubber boots for calloused feet and glasses to protect their eyes have yet to reach them. "For seven months, we are stuck in this place. There is no water, no electricity, no hospitals, no schools. Every month, the salt trader gives me Rs 3,000 as advance to produce the salt—Rs 2,500 is spent on a barrel of crude oil for the diesel pump. We have to pay Rs 500 a season for drinking water brought in tankers that belong to merchants. Finally, if the salt company buys us rubber boots, they deduct it from the amount due to us. In the end, we have nothing left."
In an attempt to pay back the advance, Dashrath like others, helps in loading and transportation of the salt. Ensnared in a debt trap, the agarias of Kuda village are compelled to sell their salt to the same merchant and then work in the salt industrial units till the advance is paid off. Salt cooperatives, which were set up to safeguard their interests, have not been spared this raw deal either.
Says former MLA Arvind Acharya who set up the first cooperative in 1952: "Gandhiji's historic salt march and the subsequent Gandhi-Irwin pact absolved salt cooperatives and 10-acre agarias (those owning 10-acre salt pans) from paying cess and royalties. Today only 32 of the 117 cooperatives are functional. These cooperatives owe over Rs 6 crore as arrears to the district bank and hence they have no choice but to avail of the advances given by merchants. The price is fixed by traders and sometimes there is a nexus between the office-bearers of the cooperative and the traders." A 1996 study conducted by the Ahmedabad-based NGO Janpath reveals that salt workers earn Rs 40-Rs 50 per metric tonne of salt while salt merchants fetch Rs 150-Rs 200 for the same. "Fifty years after India's Independence, the agaria earns six paise for a kilo of salt while profit margins for merchants have gone up by more than 500 per cent," rues Acharya.
Salt merchants protest that the overheads are high: transportation of the salt from the remote Rann, washing, iodisation before being finally packed in polythene bags and sold with fancy brand names at the marketplace. "The agarias have no possessions whatsoever—no land, no livestock. Banks refuse to give them loans and merchants give it to them interest free. If there is unexpected rainfall or some natural calamity and the salt crop is destroyed, the advance is written off," says Navinbhai Jobenputra, president, Salt Producers' Cooperative in Surendranagar district.
Salt traders have further encashed on the helplessness of the labourers. To evade cess, salt merchants owning tracts of salt pans for generations have opted to advance loans to cooperatives and purchase salt from them. According to the 'code of principle' dating right back to Independence and now revised every four years, part of the salt cess proceeds is to be pumped back for the welfare of the agarias. "21.66 per cent comes back as welfare while 64.99 per cent goes into administration expenses," adds Acharya wryly. "There are funds available to them, including such ridiculous ones as granting rewards to meritorious children of agarias for purchase of books. Kharaghoda's high school came up only last year. Finally, how can you make an illiterate lot aware of their rights?"
Political awareness, like water, is scarce. Ratilal and Vasant Thakore Kharaghoda remember a morcha organised by Congress leader Sannat Mehta in September '97. 15,000 agarias were taken to Ahmedabad to protest against the revoking of their licences since their pans fell under the wild ass sanctuary zone. "A government that cares for asses rather than human beings must be consisting of asses itself. These netas, supposedly fighting for our rights, are doing it only to benefit merchants," says Vasant Thakore.
Yet, most want to exercise their franchise hoping for a Mahatma. Sixty-year-old Kakaji of Kuda village is wistful: "I went with my father for the Dandi march and saw Gandhiji there. Then, salt was given respect, so much so that every salt worker could not leave the salt pan area without a body-search. Our salt was in much demand in UP, Bihar and even Nepal. Today, there is no value for this salt that shook a nation. There is no value for the people who make it. This 'mithu' is still the same as it was 50 years ago. Maybe the people who rule us today don't remember its worth."
For a people who live on the fringes of a free country—both geographically and otherwise—even death brings no salvation. "Our profession is an accursed one. When we die, our feet do not burn because there is so much salt in them," says a tearful Ladhoben. There seems to be no respite, either in this life or the next.