Situated about 130 km from Ahmedabad, the capital of the Indian state of Gujarat, lie the edges of the Rann of Kutch, just 10 km from the Arabian Sea. This is the land of the Agariyas, living here for centuries, knowing just one means of livelihood - salt producing. Working day in day out under a fierce sun from October to June, they grow salt in square-shaped salt pans, harvesting 75 percent of India’s total salt produce.
In the monsoon months, Rann of Kutch gets submerged in sea water. As the water starts receding in October, the Agariyas move in and begin a herculean process. They dig wells to pump out the briny groundwater and fill the square-shaped fields and rely on the natural evaporation process to leave the white crystals. In winter, the harvest season begins in the salt fields, which are now silvery white with raw salt. Braving a relentless 40 degrees during daytime which often dips to 4 degrees in the night, the Agariyas live for 6 to 7 months in the shacks beside their salt flats. With their families and children who instead of going to school, start working in the salt pans from the age of age of 10.
The production averages 12-15 tonnes every 15 days from each of these salt pans which are then sent to salt companies and chemical factories across the country. The Agariyas earn a paltry sum of Rs. 60 per tonne, whereas the market price of industrial salt is Rs. 4000 per tonne.
The low income level and lack of education facilities in the barren desert of the Rann offer few chances for the children of saltpan workers to escape a cycle of poverty and poor health and the salt workers remain generationally indebted to the salt merchants.
And the price of working for years in the harsh conditions is very high. According to a study conducted by the National Institute of Occupational Health (NIOH), Ahmedabad, the farmers suffer from skin lesions, severe eye problems due to intense reflections off the white surfaces and tuberculosis. A salt worker of Kutch seldom lives beyond 60 years. When they die, their abnormally thin legs, stiff with years of exposure to highly saturated salt, do not burn in the funeral pyre. Their legs are then collected by their relatives and buried separately in a small grave with salt so that they can decompose naturally.