Indian Express: Ahmedabad: Thursday, 12 March 2015.
NEARLY 77 per cent of the salt manufactured in the country comes from the salt pans of Gujarat spread over 5,000-odd square kilometres, mostly in the Little Rann of Kutch (LRK).
The Gujarat State Law Commission, headed by Supreme Court’s Justice (retd) M B Shah, who is also heading the Special Investigation Team (SIT) on black money, had suo motu taken up the study on the condition of salt pan workers and recommended the enactment of a special law for their welfare. The commission submitted its voluminous two-part report to the Gujarat government in May last year. The Gujarat government, which proactively passed the labour reforms bill in the ongoing Budget session, amending several laws covering labour-intensive activities, including beedi workers, said nothing on salt pan workers.
Annexed to Justice Shah’s report, is a study of salt pan workers conducted for CARE India (titled “A Pinch of Salt”), which says, “In 1930, Mahatma Gandhi led Dandi Yatra to abolish salt tax imposed by British. The living condition of the Agarias is still the same as that was in 1930,” in a chapter dealing with their socio- economic status. The Dandi march will observe its 85th anniversary on Thursday. Agarias are an occupational group involved in salt manufacturing which is dominated by the Kolis (Thakor), Muslims, Sipahi and Harijan communities.
The report - obtained by The Indian Express through an RTI application - categorically states that salt-pan workers have been leading lives in which their fundamental rights are being violated. They live on the salt pans through October-June harvesting salt, with their entire families involved in the job, suffering extreme weather conditions of the desert, the report notes.
India is the third largest producer of salt in the world after the United States and China. And a significant portion of that production is being done from salt-pans in Little Rann of Kutch (LRK) in area measuring 4,953 square kilometer.
In Gujarat, the state government gives land on lease to individuals or companies who in turn keep contractors to hire salt-pan workers for the salt production in the salt-pans that are situated in remote arid desert areas of Rann of Kutch isolated from the mainland villages. As per an estimation of the Commission, there are 1.12 lakh labourers employed in the industry in Gujarat.
Justice Shah’s report titled, “Salt Production at the cost of health of Agarias and their family members -A need for special legislation in the state of Gujarat”, Justice Shah notes, “Basic amenities for living such as housing, regular supply of essential commodities like drinking water and food are practically non-existent in these remote areas.”
Recommending necessary financial assistance through nationalized banks, other government financial institutions etc., a significant portion of the report
depicts the financial exploitation salt workers undergo at the hands of the contractors, money lenders and fair-price shop owners.The commission also appointed a committee including students of Gujarat National Law University, Gandhinagar, for spot verification of the condition of Agariyas, which noted how most of their children did home-schooling and how the salt inspectors were generally “misinformed” about their condition.
The report notes how one pan is more than ten kms way from the next and workers reach either walking or cycling. The report notes how the agariyas are always exposed to inhalable salt dust, salt crystals as well as concentrated brine, physical stress of hard manual labour, direct bright sunlight and glare due to sunlight reflected by salt crystals and brine surface.
The Commission records that due to their illiteracy and lack of knowledge, the salt-pan workers are left with no option, but to work for the contractors at wages that are below the minimum wages and have no control over the pricing of the salt in the market.
The Commission records that the welfare schemes of Central and State governments for the salt-pan workers exist only “on paper”.
Citing a judgment of the Supreme Court, the Commission has stated that the kind of circumstances in which the salt workers work, amounted to “forced labour”. It has also been recorded by the Commission that labour laws like Contract Labour (Regulation and Abolition) Act, and Minimum Wages Act are applicable to the salt-pan workers, but they are being openly violated. Justice Shah told this paper, “I have read that the condition of the salt-pan workers in Gujarat is quite pitiable. They are the most exploited persons. And as a head of the State Law Commission, I have to submit reports (on subjects that require legislative attention). So, I prepared and submitted this report suo motu”.