Working in brutal heat to fight for the purpose of little pay. Harvesting the whitest salt and making the desert its shelter is their obsolete truth; Yes! This is the story of Agariyas who play a major role in the Runn of Kutch in Gujarat. Surviving a livelihood of virtual non-identity and agreeing to move on with poorly paid labour, Agariyas have accepted their fate of laborious life. Commonly named as the salt farmers, the Thar Desert have accommodated this diligent group since yesteryears.
The Rann of Kutch is essentially a white sailcloth. Apparently never-ending and bizarre, the dazzling allure of the one and only place is undoubtedly notable. Decades ago, this desert was submerged in sea up till a major earthquake converted it into a glittering land of stark where the salt farmers are constantly extracting salts since centuries. The Runn of Kutch is engulfed in sea water during the monsoon months and finally in the month of October, the sea water starts to abate. It’s the peak time when the Agariyas excavate deep into the saltier groundwater to surge out the brine. What’s the purpose of digging the brine that resides 40 feet deep below the crust? Precisely, this highly saline lake of brine is what that upkeeps the economy of the landscape.
After the brine is gushed out and put in the square pans, the natural process of evaporation begins that forms the white raw salt. Ideally, the procedure of getting the salt pans ready is no less than to be in deep water. The workers, with the bare feet, flatten the earth level to make sure that the soil is packed tightly and no brine permeates from it.
The harvesting is done in the salt paddocks during the winter season when the brine converts its color into silvery white raw salt. Usually, they start early in the morning at 7 am in order to stay away from the unbearable sun’s heat. Undoubtedly, the Agariyas are brave enough to ever-grow in the sweltering 40 degrees whereas they also remain unaffected with the 4-degree temperature at night for nearly six to seven months residing in shacks.
After the formation of first layer of salt, heavy wooden racks are used to drag them which are locally named as gantaras. In addition, they rake the salt ceaselessly to transform them into smaller particles. The processed salt is far more different from the marine salt and locally, it is given the name ‘Badagraa’. It is estimated that approximately 12-15 tonnes of salt is gathered every 15 days to get transported to factories and companies worldwide.
After the completion of the harvesting process, the Agariya families pack their bags and return to their villages in and around the Rann. Later, with the advent of monsoons, the salt meadows get washed away, transforming themselves into sea. After four months, the farmers return back to their destined land and start the journey all over again.
Their strenuous work bring them no profits as they earn a sum of Rs. 60 per ton whereas the domestic salt cost Rs.5500. Earning a penny and living for years with exposure to the crystalized raw salt, the farmers become prone to myriad skin ailments, tuberculosis, life-threatening eye problems as well as abnormal thin legs. Living beyond the age of 60, they die in extreme poverty and poor health. Finding shelters in the barren desert, the Agariyas find impossible to escape their ever-emerging journey of living in dire circumstances.
In order to address the livelihood issues of the women salt farmers, SEWA, introduced by Ela Bhatt in 1972 has been working since centuries. The organization took its form by organizing meetings to discuss on matters comprising child care and nutrition. It also brought bachat mandals to impart technical training to farmers. In 2012, SEWA made a major change by introducing solar pumps to cut down the production costs as well as bring a clean energy method. By collaborating with Jaypee Solar, the organization installed solar panels. Till today, SEWA by addressing the crisis of Agariyas is continuously striving to bring them out of the troubled waters.
It cannot be denied that Agariyas are passionate and hardworking. They have indeed fallen for their simple life and would never ever give up on salt production in the mighty deserts of Runn of Kutch. SEWA’s efforts of installing solar energy would at least bring them closer to supportable livelihood.
If you desire to get a glimpse of the salt farming in the mesmerizing Rann of Kutch, you can choose/compare your fares in different websites like CheapOair, Fare Buzz or Google Flights and fly into the majestic Rann of Kutch to understand the natural process of salt farming and get a sneak peak of the journey of Agariyas.
You can also bring some salts with you for a better memory for which no one will stop you.