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Plight of Gujarat saltpan women: Govt admits all-round failure; Kanya Kelavni drive for girl education flops

Counterview Desk
The Gujarat government has acknowledged its complete failure in ameliorating the plight of the women involved in cultivating salt in hundreds of agariyas (saltpans) in the Little Rann of Kutch in Gujarat. A still unreleased “research” study, running into 40-odd pages, the Gender Resource Centre, operating directly under the department of women and child, Gujarat government, has said that, despite existence of large number of government schemes, “there is no change in the economic, social and health related problems of the women working in agariyas.”
Nearly 43,000 men and women from 108 villages situated on the border of the Little Rann work in the agariyas for eight months in a year, living in sub-human conditions, mainly poorly knit tents, without electricity, drinking water, health facilities and education for children. Belonging to other backward class (OBC) communities, they have been demanding recognition as “forest dwellers”, as the Little Rann is a Wild Ass Sanctuary, as it would give them right to own land under the forest rights law.
Admitting that women have to work for longer working hours – 15 hours continuously on an average as against the men who work for 10 hours – the study, titled “An Overview of the Condition of Women Working in Agariyas”, and based on an interaction with 33 women working in agariyas, says that women are not even provided with even “health health facilities”, as a result of which one witnesses “a high incidence of health-related problems among women.” The result is that, there is a “higher incidence of widows among agariya families compared to others.”
“Women begin their day at around 4 in the morning, cleaning up the tent, cooking food, go to the agariyas to work with menfolk, look after children, and sleep at 9.00 pm”, the study reports.
“Skin-related diseases are widely prevalent among agariya cultivators. The emergency 108 service, available in villages, refuses to reach up to them in agariyas, which are situated at least 7 kilometres inside the Little Rann. Nor is there any availability of vehicles, especially during night hours so that they could reach a hospital”, the study says, adding, women further feel discriminated as the “mobile health vans, which reach agariyas just once a week, have no women health workers, and women refuse to reveal gynecological problems to the men health workers.”
The study says, “One witnesses a higher incidence of malnutrition among women and children during the months they work in agariyas. Despite hard labour they do, they face a shortage of of nutritious food. Living in the Little Rann they are unable to access ghee, oil, milk, green vegetables, fruits, and the vicious circle of lack of these food items continues unabated. It is only once in a fortnight that they are able to go to their villages to access food items.”
Pointing towards poor literacy rates among agariya women, with just about one-third of them literate, the study quotes them as saying that they are unable to make their children study continuously. “Many children work in agariyas. They live in the Little Rann for eight months, and go to school only for four months, as a result of which they are often very weak in studies”, the study admits, suggesting failure of the state-sponsored Kanya Kelavni girl enrolment drive. “There is no emphasis on ensuring that agariya girls study”, it underlines.
During group discussions, the study says, the agariya women complained of lack of availability of drinking water in the Little Rann. “The tankers provide water to us next to the agariyas just once or twice a day. They pour water into the tanks put up by us. We bath just twice or thrice a week. Often we must bring water in buckets on bicycles several kilometres away. The river is far away. There is a real shortage of water”, an agariya woman is quoted as saying.
Other problems the agariya women face include no toilets in the Little Rann, drunkenness among male agariyas leading to high incidence of domestic violence, inability to marry girls in non-agariya families, lack of social life, and so on. The study has asked the Gujarat government's urgent intervention, recommending, among other things:
  • Regular supply of water through tanker 
  • Setting up of mobile toilets
  • Provision of all-weather tents which could withstand strong winds and torrential rains 
  • Provision of basic facilities at the agariya doorsteps, including food items, including vegetables and other nutritious food at regular interval
  • Regular visit by mobile health vans consisting of female health workers, with availability of basic medicines needed to address gynecological problems women
  • Provision facilities to vaccinate of infants
  • Provision of mobile schools for out of school children
  • Regular availability of basic information about government schemes meant for women
  • Special programmes to empower especially young women

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