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The forgotten workers of Little Rann

A close-up look at the young men who work in appalling conditions to supply India with salt.

The cracked and dry landscape of the salt plains of Little Rann.

Gujarat, India — Commerce has played a central role in shaping Gujarati history since 3000 B.C.  And, amidst the shrubbery and arid climate, the salt plains of Little Rann (another word for small desert) are home to perhaps one of the most marginalized groups in the region.

Salt harvesting is an eight-month long process, and the salt plains provide 70 per cent of India’s annual consumption. Harvesting is completed throughout the hot summer months by salt pan workers or “Agariya” -- landless young men who work and live on the scorched landscape.

An Agariya rinsing his hands with an irrigation pump. Photo by Sasha Caldera.

One salt pan can yield anywhere between 600 to 700 tonnes, where the adolescent workers toil for 10 hours a day before coming to a rest. In the distance, herds of wild asses and antelopes roam the desert plains in search of water. Temperatures can reach as high as 50 degrees Celsius.

Diesel engine fuel is a particular burden for salt production where rising fuel prices coupled with ruthless private lenders bring Agariyans into inescapable bonds of servitude. A single worker earns about 150 Rs (or three dollars) per tonne. The domestic salt market is corrupt, and is dominated by a handful of traders who resell the unrefined salt for a substantial profit.

Young workers take a short break while others continue. Photo credit by Sasha Caldera.

To further complicate matters, the Government of India mandates that iodine be added to commercial salt -- a process that requires industrial refining, which is unfortunately beyond the reach for a young Agariyan.

Secondly, the salt plains of little Rann are deemed as a biological reserve, and the labour of these workers is considered illegal. With no legal protection, the salt workers are barely considered as people in the eyes of the government. 

What is being done?

In spite of these grim circumstances there is hope; the Center For Environment Education — an NGO headquartered in Ahmedabad — is working with the Agariyans in experimenting with alternative energy sources. In this instance, CEE is developing a wind-powered irrigation pump that could effectively cut fuel costs and dramatically improve incomes for these young men.

Furthermore, activism is rising in the local villages. Concerned individuals led by a Gujarati entrepreneur are petitioning the Indian government to make salt harvesting a legal practice.

The need for better working conditions

More can be done. The circumstances faced by these men are no different than what coffee producers faced in the 1970s, when coyotes dominated local trade routes in growing regions.

While the free market advocates for comparative advantage, having access to markets and receiving market value for goods fall outside its rhetoric. In this case, cellphones and an understanding of commodity prices serve well in a situation where there are many sellers.

But the Agariya are not so fortunate, because the work is deemed illegal and the requirement for iodine processing makes middlemen a necessity.

As an advocate for Fair Trade, I admit that I feel tempted to suggest that establishing ethical supply chains is a viable solution. But being indebted to ruthless private lenders jeopardizes the security of these men. And large companies have a convenience of denying the very existence of these workers until the Indian government steps in. The legality surrounding these workers desperately needs a champion, and hopefully, through advocacy, the Agariyans will no longer be a forgotten people, but a beacon to those who seek to advance social justice and human dignity.


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