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No to land rights? Thousands of Little Rann of Kutch agariyas face eviction threat

By Pankti Jog* 

Way back in January 1973, the Little Rann of Kutch, a mud desert of Gujarat, was declared Wild Ass Sanctuary to protect the wild ass, which was under threat then. Fifty years later, the wild ass population has risen to 6,000 and has reached the stable category. However, the agariya community, involved in salt farming in the Little Rann for centuries, now faces the threat of being evicted.
Involved in generations-old livelihood of making crystal salt, the agariyas have had a very long and old relationship with the Little Rann. They developed their salt farming method in late 17th century (Doc. Zalawad,1977, Page 48). A firman by Mughal emperor Aurangzeb in 1669-70 ordered that the king of Halvad had been re-established as the owner of the agars (salt pans).
This firman clearly mentions that the order by which Mohammadnagar alias Halvad was allotted to Nazir Ali as Jagir was being revoked, and the rights of King Yashvant Sing were re-established, as latter was the rightful and traditional owner of the land.
Kernel Watsan has mentioned about the Vadagara salt (crystal salt). His document says that before the British took over, the Vadagara salt was farmed by the king and the community independently, without any restrictions. But the British put provisions on the independent production of salt. The kingdoms in the periphery were given permission to produce salt only to satisfy their need.
Today, the Little Rann produces around 60 lakh tonnes of salt. The uniqueness of the Vadagara (crystal) salt produced in the Little Rann is that, it is harvested from the salty water underneath the desert land. No chemicals is used during the making of the salt, which is fully hand-made. The agariya community works hard for 8 months in a year to produce white shiny big crystals out of the salt water they extract, many of them using solar energy.
However, soon this crystal salt might become a history. The authorities have issued an order of evicting all those agariyas who fail to prove their claims in the Little Rann. The Principal Chief Conservator of Forest (Wild Life), Gujarat government, issued a letter on 21st February, 2023 prohibiting “illegal” salt farms inside the Wild Ass Sanctuary.
The letter says, illegal encroachments by new salt farms in recent years needs to be immediately stopped. Further, all the agariyas whose rights are not recognized under an official survey and its settlement process is illegal would be evicted.
Following this letter, the Wild Ass Sanctuary officials clamped down on the agariya community in the Little Rann. It all started in the Adesar Rann, which falls under the Rapar block of the Kutch district, where in around 250 traditional agariyas work in salt farms. Sanctuary officials came with a big force and created an environment of terror. They broke down solar panels, their stands and controllers of over 50 agariyas.
Five year back, the Gujarat government even launched a scheme of solar pump system for the agariyas with 80% subsidy, benefiting thousands of agariyas, whose details were given recently during a question-answer session in the Gujarat assembly by the State minister for salt.
Thereafter, the sanctuary officials reached the Santalpur area, threatening agariyas that they would be evicted from the Little Rann and their solar panels destroyed if they did not stop producing salt. Agariyas vacated the Little Rann out of fear. Following interventions from local elected representatives, they were allowed to enter again on “humanitarian grounds”.
Meanwhile, the National Green Tribunal (NGT), Delhi bench, took suo moto case about illegal non-forest activities allegedly being done in the Little Rann, and issued notice to the Gujarat government to file a report on what actions were being taken to prevent such activities.
To add to this, Kanailal Rajgor and three others filed a Public Interest Litigations (PILs) demanding prevention of all “illegal” salt mining, mineral mining and non-forest activity inside the Little Rann. The Gujarat High Court sought a report from the sanctuary authorities as to who should be allowed to do salt farming.
“Every time an issue of illegal activities inside the Little Rann comes up, the sanctuary authorities harass traditional agariyas”, notes Harinesh Pandya, trustee of the Agariya Heetrakshak Manch, an organization working with traditional salt farmers for the last two decades.
“Following the clampdown order, near the Tikar side of the Rann, the agariyas were not allowed to make bunds to save salt farms from high tide water, whereas in Santalpur and other parts, the authorities did not allow transportation of salt for days. Finally salt transportation was allowed for this season on humanitarian grounds after interventions from local elected representatives from five districts”, Pandya says, adding, “It’s been 50 years and government is yet to recognize traditional customary rights of of the agariyas, and today they are being termed as illegal.”
According to him, “The Little Rann is a unique ecosystem and the agariyas share a very beautiful and peaceful co-existence with the wild asses here. They were 700 when the sanctuary was declared, and today they have reached 6,000. Credit for this goes to the community-based conservation model, and Gujarat should be proud of it.”
He further said, “Even the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) recently recorded the wild ass population as stable marking it in green colour, setting aside its highly endangered category. It is high time that the seasonal community user rights of the agariyas are recognized to ensure the protection of both the wild life and the agairya livelihood.”
Meanwhile, the land issue of the Little Rann seems to be getting complex day by day, as the government claims there has never been any survey of the territory. However, a Government of India notification of 1948 had said said that an agariya producing salt on up to 10 acre land need not have any registration or licence. Yet, sanctuary officials are seeking documents from them.
On one hand, the Gujarat government’s departments of industries, water supply, education and labour have together allocated nearly Rs 38 crore funds for the welfare of salt farmers and promote salt industry, claiming that this would enable it offer basic services, including water and health, to 45,000 agariyas. On the other, the sanctuary authorities say, they recognise only 397 salt-related activities in the Little Rann as per their survey and settlement report!
This issue is pending since long. In 2008, Narendra Modi, as Gujarat chief minister, had asked respective government departments to hold suo moto camps for agariyas, as large number of them were unaware of the process to be carried out for regularising their activities. However, not much was done either by the revenue or the forest department towards this end.
Several representations have been made under the Forest Rights Act to allow seasonal community user rights to the agariyas. The representations are still pending, with the forest department claiming the Wild Ass Sanctuary is not forest land.
It is over 50 years, and the issue has not yet been settled. Now, the traditional agariyas are on the verge of being evicted. “They say we will be allowed to enter into the Rann only in September. The Rann is our only source of livelihood, we can’t live without making salt”, an agariya salt producer told me. Another added, they "can’t sleep at night" and they "see dark future post monsoon."
The total areas of the Wild Ass Sanctuary as per notifications of 1973 and 1978 is 4952.81 sq km, which is 4,95,281 hectares. Agariyas are asking for seasonal user rights for only 6% of the total sanctuary land.
Amidst all the adverse conditions inside the Little Rann, the agariyas have been adding taste to our food plate since centuries. Today it is time to repay their debt by requesting the government to secure their livelihood by recognizing their land rights.
---
*Senior activist based in Gujarat

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