A field visit to get a closer look of Salt Farming at Kutch
Here we visited Setu Arogya Kendra, which provided basic medical facilities and also performed surgeries through guidance from doctors over Skype. They had a van with basic healthcare facilities which helped in providing basic consultation and treatment at people's doorstep. Mr Ambu Patel mentioned that if possible, a tower on their vans could be helpful in better management and communication.
Little Rann of Kutch
This area had salt farms, temporary shelters of farmers, bore wells for brine extraction and few salt factories. We also saw Khāmbi which was built in the memory of the salt farmers who faced a tragic death.
This village was home to several salt farmers, factory workers and traders. On our interaction with the residents, we came to know about the issue from different perspectives. Moreover, our conversation with Babulal Pathani gave us a closer look into this issue - its history and reasons lying in poor policy making by the government.
Salt farming starts in the month of October and lasts till May.
A 4 inch bore of plastic is dug manually in a random location without any means of detecting whether the location has brine beneath, after digging a 20-25 ft deep pit (total depth is 55-60 ft). This bore might get clogged or there may be wastes - such tasks require the workers to enter the pit frequently. The pit is dug because enough electricity is not available to draw brine from greater depths. More than one well have to be dug in one season as the well gets exhausted after some time (detected by the yellow sand in the water drawn). The water was initially drawn with Bullock carts, then machines run on crude oil and now solar pumps have been provided by government interference.
Thereafter, the brine is moved through 6 or more salt pans where the salt is prepared and the salt index of brine is increased to six times that of the dug out water. After crystallization, the salt has to be harvested in time so as to prevent its degradation and the harvested salt pans have deposits which contain 1% gypsum which companies take from the farmers at no price and extract in factories - the gypsum hence extracted actually has high market value. But the farmers get no profit from this.
The amount of gas released is less in the morning hours as compared to noon. The precautions taken are pigeons or burning cloth. If H2S gas is detected, it makes a person feel uncomfortable within 3-4 seconds and can be fatal if the person fails in escaping the well within 1-1.25 minutes. The problem of toxic gas has sprouted from the practice of digging a pit before the boring process, due to which the gas can get accumulated and suffocate workers. This was not the case with their forefathers who did not dig such a pit as they could find brine at depths that could be reached by the pump using the available electricity.
Despite being producers of such precious minerals, the farmers don't benefit from it - all profits go to the private companies. The salt farmers have meagre incomes, earning 20 paise/kg, for an annual production of around 400-500 tons of salt. There's no standardised price of salt unlike other crops. The farmers get 1500L water for 20 days which is used for drinking and domestic use. Around ₹10-15000 are spent every season in making the temporary shelters and lakhs are spent in crude oil alone. The solar pumps have been made available at a subsidised rate of ₹75000. The traders and selling price are fixed by the farmers before harvest. Traders give money in advance to the salt farmers but do not give any remuneration for their needs. The traders too don't run in much profit.
During the off-season, the farmers have no employment. The preparation for the next season takes around two months and the selling of salt etc. is done in the month of June.
The salt factory workers earn ₹200-300 per day. They work in 8 hour shifts. One day has 3 shifts - 10am-6pm, 6pm-2am and 2am-10am.
Mobile network is available from 11am to 8pm, other than that reflection of light through mica crystals is used as a means of communication in case of an emergency. The farmers had cracked, flaky skin with boils and ulcers. Gum boots were used, but they couldn't be used during preparation of salt which is done in a muddy region. The farmers carried first aid. Since the house is made of jute and wood, in the rare case of fire there's no way to extinguish it and the part is left to burn. There's no access to milk, vegetables and conditions like malnutrition, tuberculosis, cancer, eye diseases are prevalent. People defecate in the open and have minimal access to clean water. Schools that have been built where a government teacher is employed, but this system too is not free from corruption.
While we had been planning of improving the house structures, on interaction with the dwellers of temporary shelters, a new picture came into being. The residents claimed that the structures could bear strong winds, since the logs were inserted 1 ft deep into the soil. The farmers received leftover denim cloth produced in nearby factories which helped in covering their homes well. However, water did seep in from crevices.
The major problems were - water supply, sanitation and heat (during stay and mostly on farms). Some farmers however did not complain about the heat as they had gotten used to it.
Narmada Water Disaster
Last year, the water from Narmada canal flooded the salt farms and washed away the crystals in salt pans - resulting in the loss of tons of salt. This has happened 2-3 times in the past. The Narmada canal water has been directed to farms for irrigation and farmers close the channels when they do not need water. During summer, when all farmers close their channels, the water directly enters the Little Rann of Kutch, which is a low lying area.
The Little Rann of Kutch was declared as the wildlife sanctuary for wild ass by GoI because of which no new farming licences get made, nor are the existing ones renewed. The entire business is working illegally, despite contributing 70% of the total salt production in India. Due to this, there's almost no support from the government and no proper water supply or basic amenities are made available in this region.
The declaration of Little Rann of Kutch as the wildlife sanctuary for wild ass has compelled farmers who depend solely on this practice for survival to work illegally. An alternate source of income might help improve the economy of the people.
From our interactions one thing became clear, underlying all these struggles is the bigger problem of poor government functioning. To put an end to the misery of the salt farmers and improve the livelihoods of the people involved in this industry, an institutional change is needed and government needs to be pressurized.
However, the few aspects that we can work on, as observed in the field trip, include :-
1. As mentioned by one of the farmers himself, A DETECTOR WHICH TELLS WHETHER A PLACE HAS BRINE WATER UNDERNEATH can help reduce the uncertainty in digging wells.
2. A HEALTH AND SANITATION KIT - WITH SUPPLEMENTS, AND ALTERNATIVE NUTRITION METHODS - can help compensate for the poor sanitation and hygiene.
3. Besides, A DIY COMPOST TOILET THAT CAN BE DISMANTLED AND TRANSPORTED EASILY, can help solve the problem of open defecation.
4. TO IMPROVE THE HOUSING, COOLING METHODS can be looked into.
5. To avoid washing away of crystals by the Narmada canal water, A STRUCTURE THAT CAN REDIRECT THIS WATER SO THAT IT CAN BE USED BY THE SALT FARMER FAMILIES DURING THEIR STAY AT RANN, might help in providing water and prevent losses. But this again might not be easy to achieve because the region has been declared as a wildlife sanctuary.
6. GYPSUM COULD BE ECONOMICALLY EXPLOITED FOR BETTER PROFITS AND A METHOD OF HARVESTING IT CAN BE DEVISED - but this is not easy in the current scenario of this entire production being illegal.