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As season begins, Gujarat govt offers little to backward saltpan workers of Little Rann

By Rajiv Shah 
The saltpan workers, one of the most backward sections of Gujarat society, will soon start moving towards the Little Rann of Kutch in order to produce salt to eke a living in a harsh atmosphere. About 75 per cent of them belong what is called Nomadic and De-Notified Tribes (NDNT) in government registers, followed by scheduled castes or SCs (10 per cent) and scheduled tribes or STs (10 per cent). Belonging to 107 villages which dot villages on the districts bordering the Little Rann – Kutch, Banaskantha, Mehsana, Patan, Surendranagar and Rajkot — every year they move to the Rann to produce salt in October. According to the Agariya Hit Rakshak Manch (AHRM), an NGO which works among the saltpan workers, their movement, towards the Little Rann this year will start by the next week.
While the saltpan workers, along with their families, will be back to their seasonal work by October-end, civil society activists working among them wonder if they will be provided with some of the basic facilities they have been deprived of till, whether they are healthcare facilities, education, and drinking water. Answers provided by Gujarat government officials to several questions sent by a member of Parliament* on the basis of inputs by provided the AHRM suggest during the last season the state officialdom did nearly next to nothing in providing any of these basic facilities, which the saltpan workers should be provided. The questions pertained to just one area of the Little Rann, bordering Santalpur taluka of Patan district, and can be considered as an example of how things are in the rest of the regions as well.
The state health officials admit, there is no regular provision of primary health facilities to the Little Rann provision of health facilities in the Little Rann’s region bordering Santalpur. The district health officer, Patan, said, health facilities to the saltpan workers of the Santalpur taluka is provided through the primary health centre at Madhutra village, and a mobile unit visits the saltpan workers once a week. The health unit travels inside the Rann includes a health specialist, a multipurpose health worker, and a family health worker. But as for pregnant women, there is no provision for regular checkup. The health officer says, “Their checkup is carried out when are back to their villages.”
AHRM activist Pankti Jog points out, “This suggests, even according to government’s own admission, pregnant women are left out of any health facilities for five to six months in a year. Indeed, for their delivery, they have no facilities available.” Even the regular checkup of saltpan workers is carried out when they return to their villages after April. The health officer in his reply says, “Health facilities, including immunization, checkup for different infectious diseases, such as turberculosis, is carried after they return to their village”, suggesting, there is virtually no checkup of the vulnerable sections from November to April, when the saltpan workers are in the Rann.
Gujarat has been under criticism for quite long for wide prevalence of malnutrition among children. The vulnerable communities suffer the most. The programme officer of the Integrated Child Development Service (ICDS), Patan district, in his reply refuses to recall the presence of any ICDS anganwadis in Santalpur area, where working saltpan mothers could leave their children between six months and six years. The official admits that only “ICDS facilities”, such as premix food, sukhdi and upma packets, are provided once a month (instead of daily), as should be the case. Interestingly, not the government, which is obliged to provide the facilities, but an NGO, Bhansali Trust, does the job of distributing food items more regularly at half-a-dozen locations situated inside the Little Rann of Kutch.
Coming to drinking water, the Gujarat Water Supply and Sewerage Board (GWSSB) office of the district says that saltpan workers of the region are being provided with drinking water via tankers, as the proposal to provide water through pipeline cannot be implemented. “The Gujarat government has contemplated Rs 1.51 crore project to provide drinking water through pipelines on a permanent basis inside the Rann. The proposal, sent on December 31, 2012, awaits clearance from the state industries commissioner’s office in Gandhinagar. The commissioner must float tenders, whose process has not begun”, the reply says, adding, “It also a fact that, to implement the project, the wild ass sanctuary comes in the way. Hence, an additional approval from the state forest department would be needed.”
As for the provision of school facilities , the reply by the district project coordinator, primary schools, Patan, says, starting with December 1, 2012 and ending on April-end 2013, seven tent schools were set up in the Rann’s region close to the Santhalpur taluka. Here, 153 children studied. At the end of April, when the year draws to a close, these children are supposed to shift to regular schools.” Significantly, no regular teachers are provided to these children – they have to make do with Bal Mitras, whose basic job is to motivate school dropouts to return to schools. There is no facility of midday meal scheme for these children, though it should be compulsory part in order to implement the Right to Education (RTE) provisions.
Further, the children have no other place but to return to their villages in case they want to study beyond class 5. The district education officer admits, “The education to these children is provided for classes one to five. As for the higher primary, 6 to 8 standards, the children must go to the village to study.” A headcount provided by the official of the children suggests that of the 153 of them who were studying in tent schools in the Santalpur region between December 2012 and April 2013, as many as 92 were boys and 61 girls – suggesting that there is failure to enroll girls in the schools.
Other answers suggest that the Little Rann of Kutch saltpan workers are deprived of basic banking facilities. There is just one bank in Santalpur taluka which serves the saltpan workers – the Banaskantha District Cooperative Bank. It has given loan of Rs 40,000. “There is no State Bank of India, Dena Bank or Dena Bank Rural in the region”, the local Lead Bank Cell of the Dena Bank has replied to Congress MP representing Patan, Jagdish Thakore. There is also lack of other infrastructure facilities. For instance, the proposal to build a road through the Little Rann, necessary for the saltpan workers’ easy movement, is pending the forest department clearance.
The need to take care of the saltpan workers becomes particularly important in the light of a recent study by the Centre for Economic and Social Studies, Hyderabad, which says that around 75.76 per cent of the traditional agariyas or saltpan workers fall in the deprived category “when they are evaluated through 15 indicators such as food intake, health expenses, debt, land holding, fuel used, education status etc.” The study points out that 80.46 per cent of them are landless in their villages and have no alternative livelihood; 84.35 per cent of them say that they have learnt salt making from their forefathers, which also supports the argument that it is traditional occupation of certain communities; and their educational standards are poor — 31 per cent have been educated up to primary school.

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