Counterview: Ahmedabad: Sunday, September 21, 2014.
The salt-pan farmers of the Little Rann of Kutch in Gujarat are in a state of agitation. Thousand of them, locally called “agariyas”, have been served a strongly-worded notice which wants them to provide “proof” of the ownership of the land on which they have been carrying on salt farming, or "quit". Issued by the range forest officer, Wild Ass Sanctuary of the Little Rann, the notice says that if they do not provide evidence of ownership within a week, cases would be registered against them under the wildlife protection Act, which stipulates fine of up to Rs 25,000 and jail from three to seven years.
The notice, a copy of which is with Counterview, says that failure to comply by the order would make the officials to confiscate their equipment in agariyas’ possession, and they would be forcibly evicted from the Little Rann. Sources close to the development say, already, eviction at several of the villages bordering the Little Rann has begun. A week ago, 108 agariyas of village Adesar were stopped from going to the sites where they were carrying on salt farming. At village Naradi, four agariyas were detained, and their equipment confiscated.
Harinesh Pandya of Agariya Heet Rakshak Manch (AHRM), NGO working in the with the agariyas, told Counterview that they are being asked to “identify” the trucks carrying gypsum, used in several industries as raw material and which is a byproduct following salt farming, so that these could be detained. “They are being told that either they should provide details of the trucks which transport gypsum sold by agariyas to middlemen, or the bail of those who were released would be cancelled”, he said, adding, “Livelihood of 12,000 families directly dependent on salt farming, is at stake.”
The notices have been served when a Gujarat industries department livelihood project for agariyas to produce high quality salt is on. The project is being carried out with the technical support of the Central Salt and Marine Chemicals Research Institute (CSMCRI), Bhavnagar, which has developed a patented process for the recovery of Industrial grade salt from sea/ subsoil brines and utilization of bittern to produce value added products like potash and magnesium with community help from three NGOs Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), Anandi and AHRM.
“The notices are also shocking as they have been issued when the World Bank’s biodiversity project, costing Rs 25 crore, for the Little Rann of Kutch is in progress. The World Bank project envisages symbiotic relationship between wildlife and local people”, Pandya said, adding, “Faced with eviction, local leaders have begun to approach MLAs and MPs representing the villages situated bordering the Little Rann in four districts Rajkot, Surendranagar, Banaskantha and Patan. Politicians are worried: Ahead of the Lok Sabha polls, Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi visited the Little Rann and put the area on national map.”
In fact, according to Pandya, forest officials do not understand the implications of forced eviction from the Little Rann. “Currently, agraiyas are lenient towards wild ass, a rare species, who feed on their agricultural farmlands situated in border villages. Once they are refused permission to enter the Little Rann, they would start attacking the wild ass, as they would have to ensure that their crop is not destroyed. There would be man-animal conflict. Things would go particularly worse, as agariyas do not have any other alternative sources of employment.”
Further, according to Pandya, “There is no clarity in the government on how to treat the agariyas. While on one hand, they are considered farm workers producing salt on a no man’s land, which has not been surveyed to this date, but on the other, the state industries department qualifies their job as a salt mining activity. As a community in the Little Rann, they are entitled to use the natural resources for their own survival under the Forest Rights Act, but mining is not allowed.” Today, 75 per cent of India’s salt is produced in Gujarat, out of which 40 per cent is produced using by the agariyas, while the rest is industrial marine salt.