Field Visit Report - Little Rann of Kutch (03/06/2019)
Objective: A field visit to the Little Rann Kutch in order to gain insights on the problem by interviewing and empathizing with the various stakeholders, with the end game of identifying a problem.
Hypothesis (Initial Problem Statement): How might we build affordable housing for salt farmers and their families living in the Little Rann of Kutch.
Methods Used: In-person interviews, visual observation and empathetic modelling.
The visit to The Little Rann of Kutch included the visitation to two major places; The Little Runn of Kutch (where the salt farms are located), and Kharagoda (processing facilities and residence of the villagers). The visit began with the group meeting the village elders where they conveyed their pains and smiles. The meeting dealt with topics from housing to toxic gas to implementation of a P2P network inside a village. Upon the collection of insights from the elders, we proceeded to meet with Ambu Patel, a man of various capacities. Ambu Patel is primarily a photo-journalist who dabbles in other activities such as art and music, as well as advocating and empowering the agariyas. Ambu Patel led us to Chetan Aryoga Kendra (Chetan health and wellness facility) where we further understood [the plight of] the agariyas and their ways of life. We learnt that they practice telemedicine as a way of getting around the fact that doctors do not want to come to Kaharagoda due to the punishing heat. We then made our way to the salt farms in The Little Rann of Kutch. We observed the houses of and interacted with some of the last agariyas that still remain there. We had found problems and opportunities to improve the lives of the people of Kharagoda, but they weren’t parallel to the expectations or assumptions that we had. We then visited a factory and were able to see the extraction of Magnesium Chloride, as a byproduct of salt extraction at the ranns. The second day began with a visit to the ranns, this time at earlier hours than the previous day. The climatic conditions weren’t forgiving, despite the time difference between the visits of the two days. We observed the seasonal houses that were left behind by the salt farmers and analyzed the materials that they had been built with. We had also acquired samples from the ranns, that are pending analysis. We made our way to what people term as the center of The Little Rann of Kutch, the place where no cellphone signal can get to. We also visited memorials tombstones (locally known as Khāmbi) built for the salt farmers that had died during salt harvest and as a token of last respects for their hard work and everlasting spirit. The last leg of the visit involved interviews with the residences Kharagoda; The people interviewed there ranged from agariyas to salt producers and company owners to factory workers; and most important of all, the families of the working community.
Insights acquired during the field visit did not only reveal information about the community, but also shone light on our society, research techniques and our role as builders of the future and students at SRISTI summer school.
The first thing we were informed about was that Kharagoda consists of three distinct villages; Nayagav, Juagav and Kaharagoda Station (or simply called Station due to the Kharagoda Railway Station). The village where our research was conducted was Juagav. This village has the closest proximity to the factories, train station and the ranns, everything about a kilometer from the village center. The village was developed and our mindset about how villages were or how they were showcased in films, had been completely changed. The village households were of varying size, from small houses with 2 fans and lights, to bigger independent house that hand Smart TVs. The workers lived in smaller houses than the salt producers and the company owners, but the difference in was as much as we had expected. Interviews had revealed every involved in the harvest of salt, from the salt farmers to the salt traders (middle men who export their salt for packing and processing) have very profit margins. The salts farmers sell their salt at approximately ₹60/ton, and the salt traders sell them at ₹600/ton, but after transportation, washing, packing, etc. which lead to very similar profit margins akin to that of the agariyas. The only stakeholders making high profit margins seemed to be the company owners. A small local salt manufacturing company sold the salt at ₹18/kg; for perspective, that’s ₹18,000/ton, a very steep 30,000% increase from the selling price of the agariyas, and 3,000% increase from that of the salt traders. The agariyas however are happy though, with their lives. While they have inconveniences such as parts their equipment getting affected by the brine water, their main problem factor, was heat and water. A tanker comes once every month to refill the tanks. These tankers provide water to use for 25 days. Sometimes though, tankers are delayed, and the agariyas are forced to obtain water from the village. They also complained about heat among other things such as bathrooms (or the lack of), no support from the government, and exploitation of their community by different industries. This led me to [personally] believe that the agariyas had a problem not with housing directly, but with global warming due to the style of housing that they have been practicing since pre-independence. A realization that occurred was that most of them could not even utter the word climate change or global warming, yet that was the central problem that they faced. Another major problem that they faced, was that the Little Rann of Kutch falls under the area declared as a wild ass sanctuary and thus any sort of human activity is strictly prohibited. Hence, we can conclude that almost all the salt farming activity that takes place in Kutch, is illegal. Any sort of developmental solution that we may provide them would be useless, unless we empower the community. Insights obtained pointed to Kharagoda being a very well-developed place under the British Raj, but after independence, development seems to have taken a wrong turn.
The post of salt commissioner has been abolished, and the government provides no support to the agariyas, other than subsidies on the solar panels, but since solar panels are provided with subsidies to most marginalized communities, there isn’t any kind of help that the government gives these people. While problems have been identified in areas where they weren’t before; such as the farms being exploited for gypsum (a major component in cement), slowing down of the crystallization process due to high winds, spending of up to ₹15,000 for housing per season, and close to ₹70,000 on other expenses such as food and transport which is mostly borrowed from the salt traders. Substances such as Mica, Gypsum, Magnesium Chloride and Bromine are obtained other than salt, yet the salt farmers are being exploited and forced to sell the byproducts at lower prices.
While our initial problem statement directed us to build houses for the salt farmers, post the field visit, I realize that housing is the least of their problems. I realized that we tried to create a problem rather than identify one, and look for evidence to support the existence of that problem. New insights gained lead us to discover new paths and (eventually solutions) in order to make the lives of the agaris better. We may not be able to solve a problem, or completely eliminate it, but we may be able to make their lives a little better by empowering them solve their problems of heat and water, may not by making a house, but by trying to lower global temperatures.