Counterview: Ahmedabad: Thursday, 24 July 2014.
In an important move, the World Bank has begun investigation into the alleged neglect of the salt-pan workers by the Gujarat government in the Little Rann of Kutch (LRK). The investigation, which is proposed as a “research study”, follows a complaint by a non-government organization (NGO) Agariya Heet Rakshak Manch (AHRM), which told the World Bank in April (click HERE) that its multi-crore project for developing biodiversity in the Wild Ass Sanctuary in the LRK is being used by government officials to evict the agariyas from their land. AHRM has been working among the agariyas for the last several decades.
Revealing the purpose of the study, sources said, in its letter to AHRM’s Harinesh Pandya, the World Bank said, the effort of the study is to “estimate the economic value added in the salt industry production chain by salt workers/agariyas and other members of the production chain in the LRK.” Quoting from the letter, the sources added, the investigation will seek “credible, data-based estimates of this value added could help in recognizing and strengthening the contributions made by informal workers to the Indian salt industry.”
Those who are involved in the study include a team of World Bank officials based in Washington DC and New Delhi. The organizations involved are Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), Ahmedabad, and AHRM. Apart from other issues, the study will focus on “current status of land rights” of agariyas. Among the list of queries sent to AHRM include details of challenges facing salt workers in Gujarat, particularly women in salt work, the status of settlement of land rights in LRK, and of health and educational facilities.
The World Bank wants to know if climate change has affected the agariyas, whether during focus group discussions, the agariyas have stated that in the last five years the rain has spoiled their produce, and what was the impact of flooding because of excessive rain in the recent past. One of the questions said, “Since more 84% of agariyas lack alternative employment, what should be the focus for improving the existing conditions of salt workers?”, and whether it was possible to provide them with “alternative livelihood.”
The World Bank also wants to know if “there has been any benefits to agariyas from the scheme for salt workers launched under the 12th Five Year Plan”, how could the scheme have been more effective, what is the current status of “the Salt Workers’ Welfare Bill, tabled in Parliament in 2012” and if the Bill could be “strengthened”. “Salt workers see the mandlis/cooperatives as being defunct. Do you have any views on their current operation and if/how they can be revived?”, the World Bank wonders.
The AHRM in its representation to the World Bank had complained against eviction notices served on them by the Gujarat government officialdom on agariyas. Sent to the Biodiversity Conservation and Rural Livelihood Improvement Project (BCRLIP) head of the World Bank, Anupam Joshi, the AHRM complaint said, the “drastic step of eviction warning without community consultation will lead to serious impact on the well being and livelihood of large population from 150 villages on the periphery of the LRK”.
The agariyas are an important beneficiary of the World Bank-funded India biodiversity project, currently being implemented in the LRK. The main task of the project is to fulfill a “growing realization that the only way to address security of biodiversity is through large spatial scale of landscapes around protected areas (PAs) and addressing biodiversity conservation through the principles of landscape ecology that considers people and their activities as the cornerstone of landscape conservation”, a World Bank document says.
Suggesting that eviction cannot help resolve biodiversity issues, the World Bank, while preparing the project report, had insisted, “It has been realized that in countries like India where a large number of people continue to depend on forest resources for their subsistence and livelihoods, one of the keys to successful conservation lies in involving local communities in natural resource management. Among the many requirements of sustained involvement are development of economic, institutional and policy incentives in the form of sustainable livelihoods, tenurial security and capacity development.”
Asking the World Bank to keep this main project direction in mind, the letter, signed by Harinesh Pandya, had sought the bank’s “urgent attention” to the “eviction notices given to agariyas in LRK.” Calling it a “sudden development in context of agariyas’ livelihood in LRK”, Pandya reminds Joshi that “agariyas belong to denotified and nomadic tribes and salt farming is their traditional source of livelihood”. They “migrate to LRK for making salt during September and return in April, once salt is harvested.”
The complaint said, “Agariyas and wildlife show great co-existence here in the LRK. It is one of most successful example of community conservation of wild life, with no conflict. In the last 30 years, there are no cases of human-wildlife conflict in the LRK. Eventually wild ass population has increased from mere 700 to 5000.”
“We also need to take note that salt farming in the LRK has history of 600 years. However, government did not survey this piece of land. There no documentary records and thus land was given single survey no zero. The government has not been clear about its jurisdiction, and recently the whole area was put under the Kutch district collectorate”, the letter said.
Pointing out that the community has made representation to the state tribal department for recognizing their customary community user rights (CCUR) under the forest rights Act in the Wild Ass Sanctuary and this representation is pending for consideration, the letter said, the recent eviction notices to agariays in the LRK seeks “documentary evidences” of their customary right to produce salt, “or else they have to face imprisonment.”