The picturesque television advertisements for salt - cascading waterfalls of white, a cheerful sea-captain or the happy family at the dinner table - are a far cry from the searing heat and the dazzling white, blinding light of saltpans, where women work long, back-breaking hours without even a mirage of hope for consolation.
"For eight months of the year, we know of no other life, save that of the salt. Our feet are callused, our hands hard as stone, our backs are gone. I am so wrinkled; will anyone look at me and say that I'm only 35 years old? We are up by 5 a.m., do the housework and are at the saltpans from 7 a.m. till noon when it is too hot for any living creature. Then, we are back again till the sun goes down. Tell me, is this any life? I am tired. I can't do this any more. Teach me a new skill, any new skill. I want to get out of this life." Rukiyaben, who works on saltpans near Sukhpar village in the Little Rann of Kutch in Gujarat, is tired and angry. Sitting in a pit dug into the desert to fend off the heat, with a roof and walls of torn gunnysack, she is full of woe. "I have been blinded by the salt and my eyesight has gone so weak, I can't thread a needle. My parents did this work and so do I. But I don't want our children to do the same," she rues.
Life is very tough for over 100,000 women and men of the saltpans in the Little Rann of Kutch, a unique salt marsh desert located east of the Gulf of Kutch. At least 70 per cent of the salt is produced by the salt workers of Kutch using the evaporation method.
The Chuwalia Koli agarias, the community that work in the 'agars' or saltpans, occupy the borders of the desert and tap into the briny groundwater, shifting sites according to its availability. "We draw water from saline bore wells, let them into the salt-beds and rake the beds for the salt crystals that form every eight days, carefully making small hills of salt for the contractor to take away. Everybody works in the saltpans - my husband, my sons, our hired labour and I," says Rukiyaben.
The saltpans are located in what is a declared wildlife sanctuary for the last surviving species of the Asiatic wild ass and are, therefore, considered illegal. This has rendered the existence of the agarias even more precarious, as they cannot articulate a demand for basic amenities like drinking water, houses, electricity or schooling for their children.
Civil society initiatives have provided some glimmer of hope. "Tankers supply drinking water but its quality is so poor, everyone here suffers from kidney stones," says Bharat Dodiya, an activist with Setu, a civil society organization that was formed by the Kutch Nav Nirman Abhiyan (KNNA) to initially work on relief and rehabilitation after a massive earthquake of 2001.
Today, the KNNA, a unique functional network of organizations working for the development of the region, has set in motion a number of development initiatives, including providing credit facilities to women through SNEHAL, a multi-dimensional project of CARE-Gujarat; schooling for children through the Yusuf Meherally Centre, Setu's community mobilization work; and the community radio programme, Radio Ujjhas, an initiative of Kutch Mahila Vikas Sanghatana.
Setu also helped form an Agaria Vikas Samiti (AVS) to organize the saltpan workers and articulate the demands of the agarias. Initially, the organization, along with volunteers of the Yusuf Meherally Centre, set up a small school for the children. "It was difficult as older children work in the saltpans and parents were reluctant to send them to school. But we persisted," says Dodiya.
Their ambiguous status is the biggest handicap to securing any rights for the agarias. Suleiman Ahmed Bhatti, 50, a saltpan owner and member of AVS, gave evidence before a parliamentary committee on the salt industry, over six years ago, but nothing came out of it. "The salt owners asked for proof that we produced salt for them. But none of us have any identity cards and there was a lot of pressure on us to withdraw," he says. Lal Mohammed Kasam, 55, another saltpan owner, adds that the "salt companies blacklist us and refuse to buy our salt if we speak up".
Generally, a family works on the saltpans but the quantum of work forces them to hire migrant labor - usually from neighboring Madhya Pradesh. The migrant labor, which may comprise a couple and their children, are paid daily wages, according to the amount of salt they process and may get up to Rs 50 to Rs 100 (US$1=Rs 43.1) on a good day. "By sunset, I shall make at least 400 trips back and forth from the saltpan 'paatas' (low mud-walled reservoirs that trap the saline water to form the saltpan bed) to the mound of salt at its edge," says Manju, 19, a laborer from MP who, along with Khalaben, works non-stop to fill a saltpan.
They don't stop to take a breath, not even to answer my questions. Every minute lost means less salt collected, so less money from the 'mukadam' (contractor). The two women work on 'paatas' owned by Akbarbhai, 30, an agaria. The latter says that the laborers also live on the land in separate huts just like the agarias.
Rosa, 22, Akbar's wife, is expecting their third child. "The desert is a lonely place. Our clothes and food are covered with the salt and dust, everything spoils in this heat." Like others, her family lives in a tented mud pit dug into the ground to beat the heat. Sanitation is non-existent and the women can only relieve themselves under cover of darkness in the shrubbery bordering the desert. Even this is fast disappearing as the thorny scrub, prosopis juliflora, is used to make charcoal. Medical aid is also inaccessible as the nearest hospital is in Adesar, at least 30 to 40 kilometres away. Rukiyaben reveals that a child died only last month as the mother was unable to get to hospital in time.
Jannatbai, 25, Akbar's sister, who married an agaria, talks of the dreams she had of pursuing an education. "I had studied till the seventh standard. I never wanted to marry an agaria but my family said that I needed to work. The salt has taken away my dreams..."
For the women of this generation, there seems no escape. Rukiyaben recalls that she told her father she did not want to get married. "But he said that it would be for five days only and then the Almighty would be kind to me and call me. Till today, the Almighty hasn't done so, I'm still waiting," she says, even as her husband jokingly asks her how she can think of leaving him!
But Rukiyaben is not mollified. She has two daughters, who live in the village and she is determined that they get an education and a better life. "We will not bring them to the desert to work on the saltpans. We have to break this circle somewhere," she said. With better awareness, the future generations, at least, will see a difference.