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Lok Sabha polls: Post-Rahul Gandhi visit, Congress all set to hand over salt-pan workers to BJP on platter

An agariya in the Little Rann of Kutch
By Our Representative
The agariyas or salt-pan workers of Gujarat, who produce salt in the Little Rann of Kutch, face a dangerous predicament, hitting their livelihood. As on April 1, 2014, the Indian Railways is all set to close down the facility provided to more than 15,000 small salt producers to transport salt to the rest of India. Despite representations to the railway minister, Congress members of Parliament Madhusudan Mistry and Somabhai Patel, and Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi, the Indian Railways has declared that the Kuda public siding in Surendranagar, which provides the facility thrice a month to transport salt, will be “closed” with effect from April 1, 2014 and “no further notice will be given for closure.”
What is worse, according to sources close to the development, despite representations to the Gujarat government, which promised to “do something” in the matter, things have failed to move. On hearing a representation from the Agariya Heet Rakshak Manch (AHRM), which works among the salt-pan workers, senior Cabinet minister of the Narendra Modi government, Nitin Patel, agreed to write a “strongly-worded letter” to the Government of India to not to stop the railway line without the Gujarat government’s nod. However, shockingly, Sachivalaya sources say, Patel “never wrote the letter”, allowing things to remain as they were, as he "believes the issue is hot and will hit Congress".
AHRM’s Harinesh Pandya told Counterview, “What is most unfortunate is that, Rahul Gandhi, during his visit to the Little Rann of Kutch on March 12, heard only those representatives of the salt-pan workers who had for long stopped championing their cause.” He added, “AHRM workers wanted to represent to the Congress vice-president about the dangerous predicament in which the salt-pan workers might themselves in very soon. However, they were stopped those surrounding him. They did manage to meet him, but had to return after handing over a letter of demands which stressed on continuing with the railway facility. They have not received any answer from the Congress vice-president on the matter.”
Meanwhile, sources said, the BJP is fishing in the troubled waters. It is using the “failure” of Gandhi to take up the problem of the salt-pan workers, on which their future livelihood depends. Belonging to Surendrangar, Congress MP Somabhai Patel’s letter on December 17, 2013, demanding from railway minister Pawankumar Bansal, that urgent steps be taken to ensure that the railway facility is not discontinued, is being cited as an example of the Congress failure. The letter made no impact. Patel’s letter had said, by stopping the facility, the small producers’ small business would come to a grinding halt. Again fighting on Congress ticket, sources said, Patel’s failure is pushing thousands of salt-pan workers and their dependents to the BJP. Majority of agariyas belong to the backward koli community, to which Patel also belongs.
AHRM in its letter to the railway minister in late-January had explained why making organic, crystal salt by the traditional method has been prime livelihood source for over 15,000 agariya families (75,000 people) in the Little Rann of Kutch. “Agariyas primarily belong to nomadic and de-notified tribes. They are chunvaliya kolis, miyanas, and sandhis”, said the letter, adding, “Communities migrate from over 140 villages of Surendrangar, Patan, Kutch and Rajkot districts in the month of September to make salt pan using sub-soil brine. Eighty per cent of agariyas are landless, carry huge social stigma of belonging to nomadic and de-notified tribe category, are very poor. They do not have access to formal credit and are completely depend on the local money lending, to whom they have to sell their salt in advance.”
Agariya women
The letter underlined, “Transportation of salt is very crucial and expensive component in salt chain. The railway line at Dhangadhra and Kuda public siding at Kuda play a crucial role in helping salt transportation. There is no other viable mode of transport than railway for the salt produced by these workers from the Little Rann of Kutch. They contribute 50 per cent of edible salt produced in the country. If this transportation mode is closed, road transport being very expensive, salt making in the Little Rann of Kutch will become next to impossible, which will adversely affect agariya families, who are totally dependent on salt making.” Hence the request to “continue railway line and to strengthen the railway infrastructure.”
Already, the agariyas face several livelihood problems, but this one is likely to affect them directly. Other important issues they face, according to ARHM, are:
  • Their seasonal and customary rights over the Little Rann of Kutch, a protected area and a sanctuary, should be recognized under the forest rights Act. Guidelines should be issued so that Act is implemented in the Rann which is a unique sanctuary, and is falling into non-forest area.
  • Support price for the salt should be declared. The current price which the producer gets is as low as 24 paisa, which is actually less than the packing bag used for the same.
  • The crop insurance scheme should also be on the agariya farms producing salt, as they have to bear the brunt of natural calamities like dust storm and un-seasonal rain.
  • Diesel is being used for pumping of sub-soil brine which becomes a major part of production cost for the agariyas. Solar technology may be promoted, which is green energy; it will reduce the agariyas’ production cost and their dependency on private moneylenders.
  • Technology for improving salt quality and recovery of by-product should be made available to the community free of cost. The technology has been developed by the Central Salt Marine chemicals Research Institure (CSMCRI), Bhavnagar.
  • The Hindustan Salt, a Central public sector undertaking, has 23,000 acres of land. This land was once allotted for salt production. The company has decided to sub-lease the same for solar power plants. Instead, this land should be given on lease to the agariyas, and the Hindustan Salt should purchase salt from the agariyas at a support price.

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