Salt of earth: a walk through salt farming areas of Little Rann of Kutchch
If one needs a living example of co-existence of wildlife and human beings, then one can see that in the Little Rann of Kutchch. The wild ass sanctuary covers a huge area [?] though the agariyas [salt workers] live in 107 villages all along the periphery of the sanctuary. Just as we had observed and learnt in the Gir sanctuary, the Maldharis and the lions did not seem to dislike each other. In this sanctuary too, the agariyas and the wild ass did not seem to be in conflict. The co-evolutionary model of biological systems must find acceptance among the conservationists because other models have failed to deliver results. Even from the watchdog perspective, the salt workers would keep better vigil in this vast inhospitable environment than any bureaucratic structure.
The mini shodh yatra [May 11-14, 2009] was our first such attempt in collaboration with Ganatar, founded by Shri. Sukhdevbhai, a pioneer in the field of education of the children of working class in unorganized sector. Since 1995, Ganatar has transformed the educational infrastructure using local resources, technologies and participation of the communities. More than 75 per cent of the school children passed out from 10th class last year. There was a girl who never went to school after 2nd and entered 10th class directly and passed her exams. The fact that the children of the salt workers had to spend six months around the salt pans and remaining in the villages required change in the educational policy. Attendance in both the schools had to be added to make children eligible for exams. Thanks to the progressive education officers and persistence of Ganatar, this became possible a few years ago. However, millions of children belonging to migrant community still suffer from this inadequacy in Gujarat [sugarcane labour] and elsewhere.
The shodh yatra started from the Gujjubhai Bal Academy set up by Ganatar at Patadi. This Academy provides education to the children of salt workers and other poor farmers at negligible cost. In the first year, they got more boys than girls. Three years ago, they decided to admit only girls. To avoid any social problem, they have developed an innovative grievance redressal system. A complaint box is kept in a prominent place with the key given to a different student every week. All the letters/complaints/suggestions received in the box are read out, uncensored, unfiltered at the assembly time. Action is taken and where necessary, explanation is given. Of late, the need for taking recourse to such a mechanism for giving feedback has gone down due to mutual trust and respect.
We started the walk from Vachhraj Bet [a raised natural earth formation having trees, grasses and sometimes sweet underground water] used for building temples and temporary habitat. These become islands during monsoon season. The temple in Vachhraj Bet was run by a local community. Among various unique features, one was the prayer performed by a white horse brought to the temple every day at the prayer time. The 22 km walk from this Bet to Jhinjuvada Rajeshwari Mataji temple, though begun at 6 am exposed the yatris to the every day strain that workers in that region live with.
In a region where there are no trees, or milestones, the birds are nurtured by hanging baskets for them in the huts. While digging wells for pumping brine, carbon monoxide can be fatal. Pigeons sense it faster than humans and give a minute and half for the workers to get out of the well. That is the distance between life and death. The knowledge of salt workers about minerals, climate, soil, plants and wildlife is very rich. Notwithstanding what foresters may say, a conservationist cannot miss the fact that wild ass does not find salt workers a hindrance in their mobility or existence. In fact, they seem to like their company. Why else would they be found much more in the proximity of salt workers and their settlements? The knowledge of some of the economically poorest people can generate products and services, which with little blending of formal science can generate enormous opportunities for formal sector. Magnesium Chloride is extracted from the salt pan using traditional methods in somewhat in pure form. What is sold at 50 Rs. Per bag after purification with an easy process becomes 120 times more valuable. No share of that value accrues to the local people. Similarly salt workers know about the anti fungal and anti biotic property of the beaten, concentrated residue left in the salt pan and yet no product has been developed so far. Wordwide search on the plant Sudea maritima shows an upsurge of global interest in this plant on which very rich traditional knowledge exists. There are many precious phytochemicals which can be extracted based on the already available public domain scientific knowledge. But if no value addition is attempted, then people will continue to remain economically poor despite their knowledge richness.
|List of plant found during salt SY|
|Acacia nilotica subsp. indica|
To be continued:
Anil K Gupta