Saturday, December 16, 2017


Will election change fate of the Agariyas of Gujarat? : By Sharanya Deepak

Aljazeera: Asia: Saturday, December 16, 2017.
Rann of Kutch, India - The Agariyas tribe in Gujarat's Rann of Kutch desert near the Arabian Sea is excited yet doubtful as to whether elections in one of India's most industrialised states will change their fortunes.
Marked by mass illiteracy, lack of education and health facilities, and political underrepresentation, the community lives on the margins of the Gujarati society.
For eight months between mid-November and August, Agariya people live in the desert, working under extreme weather conditions, helping to produce about 76 percent of India's salt.
They have been salt producers for generations, and consist today of around 10,000 families, comprising 45,000 people, mostly located in the Rann of Kutch region.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has projected Gujarat as a model of development worth emulating at the national level. He ran the state government for nearly 13 years until 2014.
But the model, which has been said to work on the pillars of electricity, water and sanitation for all, has provided none of these for the Agariyas.
Few signs of development
Even though long electric lines cover the Little Rann, the Agariya homes are still without electricity, with few visible signs of the development that the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) claims.
"In Maliya [in Morbi district] itself, there is no waste disposal system, no proper school, no electricity most of the time," said Ramesh Katesiya, a social worker from Anandi, a local NGO working among the community.
"There was a bus stand that got destroyed in the 2001 earthquake in Bhuj. They still have not reconstructed that," said Katesiya, referring to the village closest to where the Agariyas of Morbi district live.
"He has never even been here to see which people actually live and contribute to Gujarat's apparent progress," he added, referring to Modi, who has extensively campaigned during the state elections.
Many Agariyas with whom Al Jazeera spoke expressed their anger against the ruling BJP party, which has been in power for most of the last 21 years.
Overlooked by the political class for decades, the Agariyas now show little enthusiasm in the election process. This year, an election campaign held by the District Collector in Surendranagar district has raised awareness of the importance of political participation.
There are no hospitals within close reach of the Agariyas, or routine check-ups by state officials to ensure their health.
In Morbi, the nearest government hospitals are 20 to 100 kilometres away from the salt farmers. There are no roads or public transport that lead inside the Rann, leaving the Agariyas stranded in times of medical emergency.
"The Agariyas live for eight months a year without electricity, basic shelter and any medicine," Katesiya said. "Because of their laborious work, they are prone to high fevers, tuberculosis, dehydration and severe skin burns during the summer months. In the last election, the BJP won all eight seats in this region, but still, they [the government] did nothing to help the people here. Because of that, the opposition [Congress party] has begun to gain a stronghold in these parts."
Makeshift camps
It is December, and the salt season has just begun. The sand is being pumped for brine by machines that run on diesel. The brine will then be distributed into channels, where it will cook for three months to become salt.
Because of the lack of roads and public transport into the desert, the Agariyas are forced to live in makeshift camps in the desert for eight months of the year.
Savita Dhirubhai Koli, like other members of her community, works on land of about four hectares for 12 to 14 hours a day.
During the rains, the desert sand turns into a heavy marsh, making walking or riding a motorcycle on it difficult.
"It has been a month since we arrived," said Koli, who lives in a hut made from jute bags and tarpaulin in Gulbadi, a stretch of desert in the Morbi district. "I just finished building the house, but now that it has rained, it is very wet, and water has already settled inside."
During the rains, water seeps in easily, and a strong wind destroys many Agariya homes.
In winters, temperatures are as low as 2 degrees, but the Agariyas, along with their children, continue to live in these desert huts that offer no protection from extreme weather conditions.
"We have nothing to keep warm," said Raju, a salt farmer from the Agariya community from the Morbi district, around 10 kilometres from the Arabian Sea. "I have three small children. They always get sick. But what can I do?"
Salt farmers mostly work as labourers employed by middlemen or large salt firms. They make Rs 25-35 ($0.40-$0.50) for each tonne of salt they produce.
Before the season begins, the Agariyas take a loan from an informal credit system called "dhiraan", which they pay back at the time of harvest.
At the end of eight months, they produce around 3,000 tonnes - for which, after their loan has been deducted, they make only around Rs 40,000 ($600).
"Players like Dev Salt drain the backwaters with their large machines," said Marut, an activist with the Agariya Rashtriya Heet Manch (AHRM). "It is a threat to the smaller farms like the ones in Haripar."
State support 'absent'
This July, severe floods hit Gujarat - and in Maliya alone, 30,000 tonnes of salt was washed away. The erratic rains have also delayed the production season, causing the Agariyas to worry that they may have to work extra days in the coming winter months.
While Agariyas were landowners in the past, the declaration of the Little Rann as Wild Ass Sanctuary in 1978 established that the government would own all the land.
"This has reduced previously land-owning Agariya families to positions of tenancy," said Pankti Jog, an activist with the AHRM. "But even then, state support or assistance on this land or the process is absent."
In Haripar in Morbi district, closer to the highway, mobility is easier than in other parts of the Rann. Of the around 1,500 Agariyas who work here, some have solar panels and can go back to nearby villages in case of extreme weather.
But even here, hospitals are at least 20 kilometres away, and there are no schools anywhere in sight.
"The district collector told us if we collect children, he will help us make a temporary school," said Sunita, an Agariya who lives in Haripar. "But even if we do, where will they make the school? Who will come to teach here in the middle of the desert?"
The Agariya literacy rate is close to zero, leaving no opportunities for social mobility for the next generation.
"Our children begin working when they are 10 years old," said Ramesh, Sunita's husband. "If we don't produce enough, the buyers will go to someone else, so we have to keep him happy."
Areas of the Little Rann are also called Survey Zone Zero, as no census has been conducted here since Indian independence from the British colonial rulers in 1947.
"The absence of a census, or proper data on the Agariyas, makes it hard to know what they go through and what they need," Jog said. "Including the Agariyas is a matter of state governance, which has not been done until now."
Maintaining hope
In Morbi district, there is hope among the Agariyas that a new government, unlike the present BJP, may listen to their concerns.
"We will tell them we need roads, so we don't have to live out here in the cold, and education for our children," Ramesh said. "If the (BJP) government can build tall, expensive buildings in the city, why can't they spare some money for our roads and homes?"
While one official in Haripar has promised to send a car to bring Agariyas to the polling station, in Gulbadi and the Rann surrounding Surendrangar district and faraway settlements, no such arrangements have been made. Moreover, the declaration of the Little Rann as a sanctuary prohibits mobile voting booths to enter it, making it impossible for Agariyas far away to participate.
"The ones who live 30 to 50 kilometres away will try to come," Jog said. "But those 100 kilometres or so away from their villages, how will they go to vote?"
On December 9, some Agariyas will come to vote in the first phase of the elections, travelling by vehicle from the nearest possible point, and others - the more resilient - will walk.
"If I can work for 14 hours in the sun, I can walk 15 kilometres to cast a vote," said Kumar, who lives in Gulbadi. "It is possible that nothing changes with any new government. But we have to make them notice us; maybe that will be a start."

The salt farmers of India's Rann of Kutch marshes : by Sugato Mukherjee

Aljazeera: Asia: Saturday, December 16, 2017.
Rann of Kutch, Gujarat - Rann of Kutch is a seasonal salt marsh located in the Thar desert  just 10km from the Arabian Sea in India's Gujarat district. This is the land of the Agariya people, who have lived here for centuries, knowing only one means of livelihood - salt production.
From October to June, they work day in and day out under a fierce sun, harvesting up to 76 percent of the salt produced in India.
In the monsoon months, Rann of Kutch is submerged in sea water. As the water recedes from October, the Agariyas move in to set up square fields to grow the salt. They dig wells to pump out the briny groundwater and fill the fields where the natural evaporation process leaves behind white crystals.
In winter, the harvest season begins in the salt fields, which are now silvery white with raw salt. Braving a relentless 40 degrees during day time, which often dips to 4 degrees in the desert night, the Agariyas live for six to seven months in the shacks beside their salt flats.
They pay a high price for working in such harsh conditions. According to a study conducted by the National Institute of Occupational Health in Ahmedabad, the farmers suffer from skin lesions, severe eye problems owing to intense reflections off the white surfaces, and tuberculosis. A salt worker of Kutch seldom lives beyond 60 years.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Narmada waters flood 400 salt pans

Times of India: Rajkot: Thursday, December 13, 2017.
Crores of gallons of precious Narmada water has inundated close to 400 salt pans in Kharaghoda of Surendranagar district for the last 20 days.
The water from Kharaghoda branch canal, Goraiya branch canal and Maliya branch canal, has spread in an area of 50km, leaving close to 150 agariaya (salt pan workers) families without work.
Dhirubhai Mangabhai, a salt pan owner, said, "We have been facing this problem for the last 20 days. But authorities have no time to listen to us. We have represented to the Surendranagar collector too in this regard."
One salt pan suffers a loss of anything between Rs 70,000 to Rs 1 lakh depending on the size. The workers have sent back their family members to native villages and only males are staying put at the site.
Ambu Patel, a Kharaghoda resident, said, "Such colossal wastage of water has become a regular phenomenon every winter season when Narmada water is released for rabi crop. We have been facing this problem for the last five years. The area affected due to inundation has only increased over the years."
Bharat Samera, president of Agariya Hitrakshak Manch, said, "Nearly 400 salt pans of eight societies have been washed out. We want a permanent solution to this problem."
R K Jha, chief engineer of Saurashtra branch canal, Sardar Sarovar Narmada Nigam Ltd said, "Due to cyclonic situation, demand for irrigation has decreased. As a result, the farmers stopped intake of water. However, they did not inform us. As a result, the water was continuously released and spread in the area."
Jha also admitted that proper attention was not given to the problem earlier as many staff members were on election duty. "I have deputed a team to look into the issue but we also need farmers' participation to bring about a proper solution."
Surendranagar collector Udit Agrawal said, "I have received the representation from salt pan workers and sent some officers to investigate. The probe report will be sent to the state government."

गुजरात: चुनावों के बीच ही राज्य को भूले नेता? नमक के मैदानों में घुसा पानी, सैकड़ों बेरोजगार, कोई सुध नहीं

नवभारत टाइम्स: राजकोट: Thursday, December 14, 2017.
एक ओर जहां विधानसभा के लिए चुनावी जनसभाओं में राजनीतिक नेता जनता की सेवा करने के तमाम वादे कर रहे हैं, राज्य के एक हिस्से में आई मुसीबत की सुध लेने की किसी को फुर्सत नहीं। सुरेंद्रनगर के खाराघोड़ा में पिछले 20 दिन में नर्मदा का कई करोड़ गैलन पानी 400 नमक के मैदानों में घुस गया है। इससे न जाने कितने परिवारों की आजीविका खतरे में पड़ गई है।
एक ओर जहां विधानसभा के लिए चुनावी जनसभाओं में राजनीतिक नेता जनता की सेवा करने के तमाम वादे कर रहे हैं, राज्य के एक हिस्से में आई मुसीबत की सुध लेने की किसी को फुर्सत नहीं। सुरेंद्रनगर के खाराघोड़ा में पिछले 20 दिन में नर्मदा का कई करोड़ गैलन पानी 400 नमक के मैदानों में घुस गया है। इससे न जाने कितने परिवारों की आजीविका खतरे में पड़ गई है।
150 परिवार प्रभावित 
खाराघोड़ा ब्रांच कनैल, गोरैया ब्रांच कनैल और मालिया ब्रांच कैनल का पानी लगभग 50 किलोमीटर के क्षेत्र में फैल गया। इससे वहां का करने वाले 150 परिवारों के पास अब काम नहीं रहा।
नमक के एक मैदान के मालिक धीरूभाई मंगाभाई ने बताया, 'हमें यह परेशानी पिछले 20 दिन से है लेकिन प्रशासन के पास हमारी समस्या सुनने का समय नहीं है। हमने सुरेंद्रनगर के कलेक्टर से इस संबंध में बात की है।'
एक मैदान को 70 हजार से लेकर 1 लाख रुपये तक का नुकसान हो सकता है। हालत यह हो चुकी है कि लोगों ने अपने परिवारों को गांव भेजना शुरू कर दिया है और केवल पुरुष सदस्य ही पीछे रह गए हैं।
हर साल होता है ऐसा
खाराघोड़ा निवासी अंबु पटेल ने बताया कि हर साल रबी की फसल के लिए नर्मदा का पानी छोड़ा जाता है और ऐसे ही पानी की बर्बादी होती है। उन्होंने कहा कि वह पिछले पांच साल से यह समस्या उठा रहे हैं। अगरिया हितरक्षक मंच के अध्यक्ष भरत समेरा ने बताया कि लगभग 400 मैदान धुल गए हैं। उन्होंने इस समस्या के स्थायी समाधान की बात की है।
सरदार सरवोर नर्मदा निगम लिमिटेड की सौराष्ट्र ब्रांच कैनल के चीफ इंजिनियर आर के झा ने बताया कि चक्रवात की वजह से सिंचाई की मांग कम हो गई। ऐसे में लोगों ने पानी लेना बंद कर दिया लेकिन उन्होंने इसकी सूचना नहीं दी। इस कारण पानी छाड़ा जाता रहा और पूरे क्षेत्र में भर गया।
चुनाव में ड्यूटी कर रहे अफसर
झा ने माना कि चुनाव में ड्यूटी लगे होने से इस समस्या पर सही से ध्यान भी नहीं दिया जा सका। उन्होंने कहा कि मामले को देखने के लिए एक टीम का गठन किया गया है लेकिन किसानों की प्रतिभागिता भी जरूरी है। सुरेंद्रनगर के कलेक्टर उदित अग्रवाल ने कहा कि उन्हें नमक के मैदान में काम करने वालों की समस्या के बार में पता चला है और उन्होंने अधिकारियों को जांच करने के लिए भेजा है। जांच रिपोर्ट राज्य सरकार को भेज दी जाएगी।

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Gujarat floods: Salt production hit as pans inundated

The Times of India: Ahmedabad: Tuesday, July 25, 2017.
As heavy rains lashed Gujarat, salt production across the state was significantly hit. Salt manufacturers fear huge financial losses as around 50% of physical stock at various saltworks in major salt producing districts has been washed out.
Maliya in Morbi alone has witnessed losses upto Rs 100 crore, claimed salt makers. Salt production in Surendranagar, Kutch, Jamnagar, Rajkot and Morbi have been hit on account of heavy rains and subsequent flooding.
"Some 30,000 tonne stock was lying at our salt works and it is completely washed out. We cannot ascertain exact damage till the water recedes, it could be more," said Ambarish Patel, a Maliya-based saltworks owner.
There are more than 500 salt manufacturers in Maliya, a loading station located some 20km off the coast. "Of the total 10 lakh tonnes salt loaded at the units in Maliya, 7 lakh tonnes was completely washed off within three days due to flooding," added Dilubha Jadeja, president, Marine Salt Manufacturers Association.
"Gujarat has received over 60% of season's rainfall within a month. With heavy rains and flooding, salt production and salt works in districts such as Surendranagar, Kutch, Jamnagar, Rajkot and Morbi among other have taken a hit," said B C Raval, president, Indian Salt Manufacturers Association (ISMA).
Overall, salt industry has been hit hard and government should assess the loss and declare financial assistance to help salt industry recover their losses, claim industry stakeholders.
Due to flooding and overflow of surrounding dams, there has been heavy damage in terms of earthworks and brine dilution.
"Salt produced in the last six months was lying at the manufacturing unit. Nearly 8,000 tonne was washed away. We were in the process of loading another 10,000 tonne at our Saltworks in Maliya which is also destroyed," said Sauddin Samtani, owner of a manufacturing unit in Maliya.
Gujarat produces 200 lakh tonnes of salt every year and accounts for 75% of India's total salt production. Salt industry players also fear that incessant rains may also delay the salt production season, which normally starts from September month.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Ground Zero of Salt Making

Deccan Chronicle: New Delhi: Saturday, June 17, 2017.
Survey Number Zero documenting the story of three women salt farmers at the Rann of Kutch, is up for competition at the IDSFFK.
It was October 2015, and the Films Division of India had just invited proposals from filmmakers to produce documentaries. With Gandhi Jayanthi around the corner, Priya Thuvassery heard everyone around her talk about the Father of the Nation. She had been yearning to make her new documentary, after the acclaimed My Sacred Glass Bowl, and all that Gandhi talk brought to her mind the Salt Satyagraha. She started reading more about it, finding out how Gandhi picked up salt as a symbol of protest and made the Rann of Kutch in Gujarat so famous. She realised how that same symbol now stands for a tragic tale of a bunch of farmers, called Agariyas, coming there every eight months of a year to produce salt. Priya found a women crew and went there to make a documentary, Survey Number Zero.
The documentary, shot over eight months through different stages of the salt production, will be screened at the 10th International Documentary and Short Film Festival of Kerala (IDSFFK) that begins in Thiruvananth-apuram this Friday. It will be under the competition category.
“As a film student, I used to get goosebumps just watching the documentaries made by PSBT (Public Service Broadcasting Trust). After that, the next option for funding came from the Films Division,” says Priya, working in the documentary feature department of NDTV, New Delhi, and having roots in Kozhikode.
When she first went for recce, it was monsoon time, and the farmers had all gone away to their villages. “They go to the Rann only for eight months, for the salt making. Rest of the time they go to their villages.” So she visited many families, heard them out, and thought of telling their problems through one family. “But then I stepped inside one home, and the silent women outside had suddenly changed body language. They became free, they asked me to take their photographs. They spoke to me in Gujarati and I replied in Hindi, but I could relate to these women so much.” So she decided to tell their story through three women, Hansaben, Bhawanaben and Pashiben of three ages through three stages of salt making: September, December, March.
Priya’s film opens with these lines: The Agariyas are traditional salt farmers in Gujarat’s Little Rann of Kutch. This huge 5000 sq km land has never been surveyed. In land revenue records, it is listed as: Survey Number Zero.

She found that they produce about 15 lakh tonnes of salt every year, but in 2015 the price of salt dropped from 28 paisa to 21 paisa per kilo. They protested for a month but then went back to their old lives. They have debts, agricultural loans, their children get no proper education and they have no proper health service. But they don’t complain. “Their dreams are small: to have a good bath, to buy a comb and comb hair every day.”

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Taking the web to children in India's remote salt desert

Daily Mail: UK: Tuesday, April 11, 2017.
Sheltered beneath a canvas sheet, miles from any roads or power lines,
children huddle around a tablet and experience the internet for the very
first time in India's remote salt desert, the Little Rann of Kutch
Sheltered beneath a canvas sheet to escape the blistering desert sun, miles from any roads or power lines, a group of Indian children huddle around a tablet and experience the internet for the very first time.
The remote wi-fi connection is powered by a van bringing the digital world to around 10,000 families living on the inhospitable salt flats of western Gujarat state, where they work eight months a year in extreme conditions.
The salt desert known as the Little Rann of Kutch, is roughly 180 kilometres (110 miles) from state capital Ahmedabad.
The workers mining the land for salt live without electricity and other amenities while their children attend school in mud huts or tin sheds where they lack even the most basic learning supplies.
Bringing the web to this isolated region is no small feat, with communities scattered over thousands of square kilometres.
The crew from NGO Agariya Heethrakshak Manch, one of the stakeholders in the project, first erected a powerful digital tower on the outskirts of the desert capable of sending a signal up to 60 kilometres away.
Then they fixed an antenna to the top of their van and hit the road armed with laptops, tablets and printers.
They visit each of the region's 14 makeshift schools approximately once per week, teaching the students how to use technology to access the internet and learn digital skills.
Indian salt pan workers toil in the remote and arid Little Rann of Kutch
 region for nearly eight months of the year in extreme conditions
The students are eager to learn, crowding around to watch online videos about maths and science.
"The internet and these tablets have made learning much more fun and engaging for all the children. They now have so much to learn and explore," Pankti Jog of Agariya Heethrakshak Manch told AFP.
The youngsters are not the only ones discovering the joys of the web.
This mobile service has also helped their parents migrants who make the annual journey to the salt plains for work access government welfare schemes online, Jog said.
The crew hopes to increase the frequency of school visits to once every three days once they get more vans.
Currently their single van speeds between three schools a day, spending about two hours at each, Jog said.
"We have connected around 800 students to internet and digital learning in this remote region", she said.

Taking the web to children in India’s remote salt desert

The Hindu: The Little Rann of Kutch (INDIA): Tuesday, April 11, 2017.
Sheltered beneath a canvas sheet to escape the blistering desert sun, miles from any roads or power lines, a group of Indian children huddle around a tablet and experience the internet for the very first time.
The remote wi-fi connection is powered by a van bringing the digital world to around 10,000 families living on the inhospitable salt flats of western Gujarat state, where they work eight months a year in extreme conditions.
The salt desert known as the Little Rann of Kutch, is roughly 180 km (110 miles) from state capital Ahmedabad.
The workers mining the land for salt live without electricity and other amenities while their children attend school in mud huts or tin sheds where they lack even the most basic learning supplies.
Bringing the web to this isolated region is no small feat, with communities scattered over thousands of square kilometres.
The crew from NGO Agariya Heet rakshak Manch, one of the stakeholders in the project, first erected a powerful digital tower on the outskirts of the desert capable of sending a signal up to 60 km away.
Then they fixed an antenna to the top of their van and hit the road armed with laptops, tablets and printers.
They visit each of the region’s 14 makeshift schools approximately once per week, teaching the students how to use technology to access the internet and learn digital skills.
The students are eager to learn, crowding around to watch online videos about maths and science.
“The internet and these tablets have made learning much more fun and engaging for all the children. They now have so much to learn and explore,” Pankti Jog of Agariya Heet rakshak Manch told AFP.
The youngsters are not the only ones discovering the joys of the web.
This mobile service has also helped their parents migrants who make the annual journey to the salt plains for work access government welfare schemes online, Ms. Jog said.
The crew hopes to increase the frequency of school visits to once every three days once they get more vans.
Currently their single van speeds between three schools a day, spending about two hours at each, Ms. Jog said.
“We have connected around 800 students to internet and digital learning in this remote region”, she said.

Sunday, April 09, 2017

Tublo Sir is in the Class : by RITU SHARMA

Indian Express‎‎‎‎‎: National: Sunday, April 09, 2017.
Towards a brighter future: (Left) Osama Manzar of Digital Empowerment
 Foundation briefs the parents of Rann shala students; children run on the barren
 land of Little Rann of Kutch.
In the remote salt marshes of the Little Rann of Kutch in Gujarat, wi-fi powered laptops are bringing children back to school.
Four-year-old Vishnu Kabaliya recites the “Barakhadi” (the Gujarati alphabet set) in complete sync with the audio and colourful animation popping up on the tablet on his lap. Sitting cross-legged on a brown jute bag, he has a vice-like grip on the tablet, preventing his classmates from even touching it. “I like watching Motu Patlu (an animated sitcom series), but my favourite is the rabbit-and-hare story,” says Vishnu, refusing to look up from the device.
In the scorching salt marshes of the Little Rann of Kutch in Gujarat, wi-fi powered tablets and laptops are drawing children of salt pan workers and members of the Agariya community back to the Rann shalas, the government-approved makeshift tent schools at Kharaghoda in the Surendranagar district of the state. “The Rann shalas are now registering an increase in attendance. Earlier, of the 251 students enrolled in 14 schools, only 60-65 per cent would attend. Now, 95 per cent do,” says Punabhai S Vakatar, the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA) district co-ordinator of Surendranagar.
The Agariya community usually spends about eight months in the Rann, working in the salt pans while their children attend the school here. They return to their villages by mid-May.
Read | Gujarat: Private school fees to be regulated from this academic session, says Education Minister
The excitement is palpable at the Manish Rann Shala, 30 km from the nearest habitation of Patdi town in Surendranagar district, where the white “digi-van”, which brings in the equipment an LCD screen, five tablets, a laptop, a laser printer, a lamination machine and a camera has drawn all 21 of its enrolled students, including Vishnu. “The children are very excited by the entire setup. They do not mind staying back in school now. Earlier, it was difficult to get all of them to concentrate as students of various classes and ages sit under one small tent,” says Himmatlal N Patel, the teacher at the Manish Rann Shala, where, apart from the tent, a small blackboard on a wooden stand is the only other infrastructure.
What has really got the attention of children these days is “Tublo”  the local term for YouTube. Despite language and digital barriers, children as young as four years old are using YouTube to find their favourite Gujarati poems, rhymes, alphabet tutorials and mathematical puzzles, says Rahul Chaudhary, co-ordinator of the project, Zero Connect, the brainchild of three NGOs Digital Empowerment Foundation (DEF), Internet Society (ISOC) and the Ahmedabad-based Agariya Heet Rakshak Manch (ARHM).
While the students dabble with web pages, they also have access to elementary study material. “We have uploaded various Gujarati songs, an application with math puzzles and alphabet rhymes,” says Shah Alam, the DEF co-ordinator, adding that more applications will be installed on the tablets in the coming days.
“The children also have access to video conferencing, which connects them to the outer world. Through this, they will also study what their peers are being taught in the cities and even across the globe,” says Harinesh Pandya, director, AHRM.
Apart from bringing children back to school, the technology is also digitally empowering the population of nearly 5,000 salt pan workers. For one, video conferencing is a massive step up in a region where mirrors are still used to relfect sunlight and send out signals rigorous vertical flashing of a mirror signifies a medical emergency.
Despite its relative success, NGOs insist that the project is still in its nascent stage, and will require “acclimatising” to the extreme environment here. “We did not realise that even on such a barren, unobstructed piece of land, we would face aligning problems. The earth’s curvature was hampering the signals from the Wi-Fi tower we had set up at a location bordering the Little Rann of Kutch. Then, after several tests, the tower was installed at Zinzuwada police station, nearly 30 km from Patdi,” says Osama Manzar, founder, DEF.
“Of the 162 projects we are running in over 22 states, this is the first that is operating from a moving vehicle. The rest are all stationary centres,” says Manzar. The project, he says, aims to end the “600-year-old isolation” of the Agariyas. “Poora desh jinka namak khata hai, unke liye kuch karna chahiye (We should do something for the community that gives salt to the entire country),” he says.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

The salt farmers of wild ass country : Kavita Kanan Chandra

The Hindu: National: Sunday, Feb. 24, 2017.
A pair of black gum boots stands in the corner of Dhirubhai’s temporary shack, his home for eight months in the Little Rann of Kutch. The shack, built entirely of jute bags and plastic sheets and propped up by bamboo poles, houses nine members of his family. It is shaded a little by a babul tree from which hangs a rope swing.
Adjacent to the shack stretch the salt pans, beyond which lie miles and miles of barren, saline, cracked mudflats. These mudflats are intermittently broken by more salt pans, each with a solitary shack under a lone tree.
I am in the Dhrangadhra salt zone of the Wild Ass Sanctuary inside Little Rann, which has five other concentrated salt zones: Kharaghoda, Halvad, Santalpur, Adesar and Malia. Scattered in these zones are 8,000 to 10,000 families of Agariyas or salt farmers (‘agar’ is a salt farm). The majority are Hindus, belonging to the Chunvaliya Koli community while the Miyana and Sandhi are Muslim. They are a Denotified Tribe, united by their shared occupation, their culture, folk songs and the hardships of salt farming.
As we sit on the string cots outside the shack, sipping black tea—milk is unavailable here—Dhirubhai and his wife Liliben introduce us to their family. They are dressed like city-dwellers, the women in sarees and salwar kameez and the men in shirts and trousers. The older son Vikram is married with three young children. Their daughters Bhavna and Aarti have been able to attend school up to Class VIII, even though most Agariyas are illiterate.
Cuts like salt
As we talk, my eyes keep drifting back to their bare feet speckled with salt granules sticking to the chapped skin. Dhirubhai explains that their feet are perpetually exposed to the highly-saturated brine in the salt pans. “A salt worker’s hands and feet stiffen and at times water oozes out of our legs,” says Dhirubhai. All the work is done barefoot—that’s the indigenous way salt has been made for centuries. “The gum boots can be used only when the salt crystals are hardened. They were gifted by an NGO and spared my feet from cuts and bruises while levelling the salt pan and shaving and cutting the salt crystals. This has to be done every day under the scorching sun, and when the salt hardens like marble, our feet are prone to blisters,” says Dhirubhai.
The older generations of Agariyas didn’t have this accessory. A popular story goes around in the Rann that after an Agariya’s death, their stiffened legs do not burn in the funeral pyre and have to be buried separately. Today, life looks a little more promising. “The Gujarat government is distributing safety kits with gum boots, caps, dark glasses and hand gloves,” says Harinesh Pandya, an activist with Agariya Heet Rakshak Manch in Ahmedabad. Schools, student hostels, mobile health vans and drinking water are made available to them.
But these efforts are miniscule. The Little Rann is vast and the salt pans are so spread out that commuting takes a lot of time. “We receive 1,000 litres of water every 15 days,” says Bhavna. This scarce amount is just enough for drinking and cooking for her family of nine. Obviously, hygiene and sanitation are compromised. “We go every alternate day to Navagaon village, some 8 km away, to bathe.”
The sun and salt also take a toll on their health. The searing blaze of the sun reflected by the salt pans causes early cataract and skin problems. When a group of Bengaluru school children visited here, accompanied by Chirag Munjani, founder of a responsible tourism initiative called Rural Pleasure, they carried with them sunglasses and winter cream, among other things. “Most Agariyas suffer from malnutrition, as they subsist on millets and garlic chutney, which is their staple diet,” says Munjani. Bhavna describes a typical day. They start at 5 a.m. with black tea and bajra rotlo (pearl millet flatbread). After work in the salt pans, they have an early lunch at 11 a.m. consisting of khichdi, buttermilk and sometimes potato or brinjal curry. After a break, they head back to the pans and work till till 6 p.m. Later in the evening, a cup of black tea is followed by dinner at 7 p.m., which consists of bajra rotlo, chilli-garlic chutney and white jaggery.
I am invited into their kitchen and given lessons in making bajra rotlo amid much giggling. This breaks the ice. “I like the silence and solitude here more than the four months we spend in the village,” says Bhavna. She sighs about her marriage in August, which will take her to an agricultural village. Her father has been desperately seeking a groom for Aarti as well, so that both sisters might be married in a single ceremony, an expensive affair that could cost as much as Rs.50,000.
Business is bad
Dhirubhai is a worried man—the price of salt this season is a measly 20 paise per kilo as fixed by his salt trader. The price varies every year between 18 paise to 28 paise depending on the quality of salt and the market demand. “They have been dealing with this uncertainty for generations,” says Chirag.
“The Agariyas are forced to make an advance trading of salt before the start of a fresh season each year. They migrate in September to Little Rann of Kutch and return to the villages by April-May. Every month, they take dhiraan or credit from traders for food, fuel and daily expenses,” says Pandya. With no access to formal credit, support prices or insurance, the Agariyas are at the mercy of the salt traders.
Last year, Dhirubhai incurred losses. The price fixed was Rs.215 per tonne and he produced 800 tonnes of salt, so he got Rs.1,72,000, while his expenses were Rs.1,87,400. He could not make more salt because he was short of ground water. Dhirubhai’s biggest expense—Rs.77,400— was on the nine barrels of diesel he needed to pump brine from the well. This cost him more than food for the eight months. Electricity he gets from a generator that also powers the TV, their only entertainment.
Seasoned in brine
“This season looks bleak too; the price of diesel has escalated,” he says. “It will only be in Janmashtami that I will know if I will make a profit or loss.” Janmashtami is the biggest festival of the Agariyas. The accounts are settled after the salt production cycle with chhelo chukavo, the final payment after deducting all credit.
Work starts just after the monsoon, when the Agariyas take their few possessions on camel carts or chhakdas and migrate to the Little Rann to lay out the salt pans. The important tools are dantaala and faantiya (fourteen-and seven-toothed rakes) and pavdo, pavdi, kodali (types of spades) to dig a new well or repair an old one. The depth depends on the availability of brine.
In Dhirubhai’s salt pans, the diesel pumps roar as the brine gushes from the pipe into flat square salt pans called gamda (condensers). The brine passes through several condensers and is allowed to concentrate through a natural process of evaporation. The concentrated brine is fed into larger salt pans called crystallisers. “It is very important that these are levelled well, that they have a slight slope for the brine to flow, and that the bed is hard and impervious,” says Dhirubhai. For this, a salt farmer rhythmically and softly tamps down every inch of the crystalliser with his feet in a process called pagli paadwani. “Otherwise, soil can mix with salt while raking,” explains Vikram.
I roll up my trousers and get into the salt pan with Dhirubhai and his children. It is hard work. Within a few hours my feet are itching with the clinging salt particles and the drying mud is stretching my skin.
The Agariyas continue work well into summer when the temperature soars above 50 degree centigrade. The continuous raking and scraping has to be done when the layer of salt crystals reaches a thickness of seven to nine inches. Just before the dust-laden winds called udaan (and intense vaavar) begin in summer, the salt crop is harvested. Salt is taken by trucks to the periphery of the Little Rann to open storage sites called ganjaa. From here, it will be taken to market by truck or train.
“Salt farming in most of Little Rann is a dying industry,” says Manish Shah, a salt trader from Dhrangadhra, who has suffered heavy losses over the past three years and has quit salt trading. “Diversification from ‘vadagaru’ salt (larger crystals) to ‘karkach’ salt (fine-grained) and a shift from traditional to scientific methods of salt farming is required for its survival,” says Bharat C. Raval, president of the Indian Salt Manufacturers Association in Ahmedabad.
The Agariyas and activists are also demanding Forest Rights Act that will assure them traditional user rights for salt farming. “They have no farm land and no other skills. Salt farming is their sole livelihood,” says Devjibhai Dhamecha, a naturalist who hails from a salt family. “And there is absolutely no threat to wildlife by the Agariyas. In fact, the population of endangered wild asses has increased from 320 to 5,000 in just 50 years,” he adds.
As the fading sun casts an orange glow, Dhirubhai shows me the place where the railway lines used to be before Independence—just next to their ancestral salt pans. It was salt that triggered Gandhi’s Dandi March, setting the course of the freedom struggle. As I leave the Little Rann, I wonder if this community will be able to chart a new course for its ancient way of life.

(The writer is a freelance journalist and travel writer who searches for positive stories across the country.)

Friday, March 10, 2017

Gujarat NGO provides wifi, tablets to poor saltpan workers' children of Kutch, official terms it "temporary solution"

Counterview‎‎: Kharaghoda: Friday, March 10, 2017.
Even before the Gujarat government initiates its well-publicized decision to provide tablets costing Rs 1,000 to four lakh youths, an Ahmedabad-based NGO has begun a major experiment to train poor primary school children of the saltpan workaers in the Little Rann of Kutch (LRK) to use tablets as a learning tool with the use of wifi through mobile van.
Spread out in the vast expanse of LRK’s 5,000 sq km, around 8,000 families from the nearby villages come to the LRK post-monsoon for six months to produce salt to earn a livelihood. If earlier NGOs would run make-shift schools across the LRK, now the state government sets up temporary schools for the children of these families for six months.
Organized by Agariya Hit Rakshak Manch (AHRM), which has been working for the welfare of saltpan workers for the last over a decade, the wifi experiment is being supported by Delhi-based Digital Empowerment Foundation (DEF), which claims to have been working among 80 districts of India for overcoming the digital divide between the rich and the poor.
Talking with Counterview on the sidelines of a function in LRK, where little children were seen using tablets to learn arithmetic, English and Gujarati, DEF’s founding-director Osama Manzar said, “The current speed of wifi is 6 mbps, which we propose to increase to 20 mbps so that children are at ease to connect with the outside world with internet and improve their learning skills.”
Earlier, addressing the function, Manzar said, “Currently, we are providing wifi facilities for tablets donated to schools to the children of seven LRK schools. We plan to take it to 14 temporary schools within six months.. Our mission is to demonstrate that internet is no rocket science, it can be part a child’s play, a part everyday life for the poor.”
At the temporary school, set up in a tent next to the function site, children were seen using voice recognition to reach out to internet, as they do not know typing. Using youtube, one of the children, Anil told Counterview, “See we can learn ABCD on tablet! It’s so simple!” Added Sagar, another child, “All of us know how to use it now. It’s a great friend.”
AHRM director Harinesh Pandya said, “The internet facility will also be used for connecting saltpan workers’ children with the permanent schoolsoperating in the villages surrounding the LRK. With the help of the facility, the teachers could teach English and arithmetic on internet.” He hoped, donors would come forward to provide more wifi vans and tablets.
Added ARRM’s senior activist Pankti Jog, “Tablets connected with wifi to children is, however, not the only aim of providing internet facility in the LRK. We want to create a complete data base of around 8,500 families who come every year to produce salt in the region. They use up just 2.5% of 5,500 sq km area, yet they are harassed and sought to be displaced, as the saltpans operate in the wild ass sanctuary.”
Critical of the NGO experiment, a Gujarat government official of the Sharva Shiksha Abhiyan official, Punabhai Vakatar said, “These are all temporary measures to bring in children to the mainstream. Unfortunately, none of the several NGOs working for the welfare of the saltpan workers’ children have looked for finding a permanent solution provided by us – to make children live in residential schools set up in several of the villages surrounding LRK. It’s all free.”
Contradicting , Jog told Counterview, “What government officials do not recognize is, while children of the upper primary go agree to stay in residential schools set up by the government, the children studying in classes one to five find it difficult to part with their parents. They are therefore brought into LRK by them.”