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  • Writer's pictureTanjal Shah

LIFE AT THE MARGINAL END

While buying salt, do we even think for a split second of how it came about? No, we don’t. Salt is a daily essential which is found in every household, but most don’t know its story. Its high time we get to know about it and educate ourselves.

All of us are in awe of the majestic beauty that the Rann of Kutch holds, but when you go further there is a little Rann of Kutch, and this place produces almost 30% of India’s salt.

‘Agar’ means salt; those who farm this salt are proudly called ‘agariyas’. The agariyas are a community of resilient people in India whose traditional occupation revolves around salt farming. They have been the custodians of the centuries-old practice of salt production, which has played an important role in shaping their lives' socio-economic and cultural fabric. The agariya communities' roots trace back to ancient times and their association with salt practice can be found in Maurya and Gupta periods in history. Over time their unique knowledge has been passed down from generation to generation and preserved with dignity and pride.

The agariya community’s lifestyle revolves around salt pans. The “survey number zero” land is spread across 5000 square kilometres and is difficult to access due to the fear of getting lost and the notorious weather conditions. By October, when the sea water begins to reside, the agariyas move in. They create temporary huts called “bhungas” and live in those shanty conditions for almost 8 months! During this time, they toil and work hard in extreme weather conditions to produce salt. The life of agariyas is filled with trials in everyday life, and they hope for a better one every moment.

It is not an individual task at hand, it is a family’s lifestyle which is intricately woven within salt farming. The entire family participates in various stages of salt farming. From the little ones helping with basic tasks to elders providing them with the knowledge, every member contributes in the process. Since the knowledge of salt farming has been passed down for generations, it is an oral history, whose integrity is not lost to date. This knowledge transfer ensures the continuity of the ancient ‘art’ of salt farming and also the preservation and safeguarding of the agariyas unique identity.

Even after all this hard work, toil and resilience; the agariyas do not get their due recognition in society as a community. The agariya community faces multiple challenges, threatening their age-old occupation and way of life. The major challenge they face is the severe weather conditions. Droughts and erratic monsoons negatively impact the availability of seawater, affecting the salt-farming process overall. Also, the low incomes and lack of educational facilities on the barren Rann of Kutch offer very few chances for the children to escape the cycle of poverty and poor health and make a better life for themselves. This leaves the salt farmers ‘generationally’ indebted to salt merchants.

What price are these workers paying to work here – skin lesions, severe eye problems due to reflection of white surfaces, tuberculosis, malnutrition etc.? There are also poor hygiene levels as water comes once every two days. The conditions are so bad, post the death of these workers, their legs don’t even burn on the funeral pyre due to the stiffness of years of exposure to highly saturated salt. Their legs are collected and burnt separately in a small grave with salt for their decomposition naturally.

Even after all of this, this community isn’t recognized in society and is not paid the true wages they deserve for all their unconditional efforts. We aim to bring betterment in their lives with due respect and dignity. The Agariyas exemplify the survival of a marginalised community residing in harsh conditions.

The agariyas provide a living testament to the ancient art if salt farming in India. Their traditional knowledge, resilience, and dedication have enables them to sustain their way of life for centuries. Despite the challenges they face, the agariya community strives to preserve their cultural heritage and contribute to the country’s salt production. By supporting and recognising the agariyas, we safeguard their livelihood and preserve a valuable part of India’s history and cultural identity for generations to come.





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