Bounties of a bleak landscape

Print edition : May 05, 2006

Work in progress at a salt pan. -

The Little Rann of Kutch is hot, dry and salty, but it has rich biodiversity.

SALT overpowers you in the Little Rann of Kutch. It burns the insides of your nose. You can taste it on your tongue and lips. It makes your eyes run. All it takes is an hour in the Rann for salt to saturate your senses.

THE INDIAN WILD ass. The Little Rann of Kutch is home to the last surviving species of the Asiatic wild ass.-DEVJIBHAI DHAMECHA

Imagine living here. In a flat land, with cracked earth and a bare horizon broken only by the occasional salt pan or sometimes a Bet (plateau or elevated island). The only people who survive in this harsh terrain are salt-pan workers known as Agarias, belonging to the Chuwalia Kolis caste, which comes under Other Backward Classes. Local legend has it that even after an Agaria is dead and cremated, the soles of his feet remain. A lifetime of hard work in the salt pans hardens their skin so much that even fire cannot burn it.

For eight months, the Agarias camp in the Little Rann to make salt. They make huts over pits dug in the ground to protect themselves from the wind and the sun. There is no water, no groceries, no school, no doctor... nothing near by. It is just them and the salt pans. They dig wells and use diesel pumps to draw water from the saline aquifers. It is essential that water keeps flowing through the salt pan without interruption so that salt crystals are formed properly. That is why Agarias cannot leave salt pans unattended and go back to their villages at the edges of the Little Rann.

PELICANS IN A creek. The water bodies of the region attract at least nine species of migrant birds.-DEVJIBHAI DHAMECHA

"We have to work like oxen every day, pulling the rake through the water. Look at these blisters on my hand. The salt is so blinding, I can't even see properly," said Bhavan Muladia, who had set up a salt pan with his brother. "There isn't even drinking water here. We buy water from a tanker that comes every five days. The water costs Rs.500 a month. We get to bathe every 15 days. That's why everyone keeps falling ill here."

THOUGH DROUGHT-PRONE, the land is rich in plant life, which includes six threatened species.-DEVJIBHAI DHAMECHA

Why do they continue to work in such severe conditions? "What else can we do? There's no other work. In the rains, we work in the villages on other people's farms. But after that there's nothing. Give us a choice and we'll leave."

An Agaria boy at a salt pan.-

Who would believe that such inhospitable terrain supports so many people and very rich biodiversity? This region is home to the last surviving species of the Asiatic wild ass (Equus hemionus khur). It also has six threatened plant species, nine species of endangered mammals (wolf, caracal, desert cat, chinkara, blackbuck, blue bull), six threatened species of water birds (houbara bustard, lessor florican, spoon bill, peafowl, hawks, large falcons) and six vulnerable reptile species, according to a report prepared by the Gujarat Ecological Education and Research Foundation (GEER). Its waterbodies are home to many migratory water birds and are even the nesting grounds for lesser flamingos. Besides, there are 253 flowering plant species here.

In the past century, the Indian wild ass was found all over the dry regions of northwestern India and western Pakistan - Jaisalmer, Bikaner, Sind and Baluchistan. Today, it is found only in the Little Rann, and a few stray towards the Great Rann of Kutch. At the last count, in 1998, its population was estimated at 2,940.

The population has been growing since 1976. But as wild ass expert Nita Shah points out, long-term trends show intense fluctuations. Since the area is drought-prone, the wild ass population could decline suddenly. If there are no severe droughts, the species is likely to grow and disperse in the Great Rann and Rajasthan, habitats that the wild ass occupied in the past. The GEER report recommends that the Thar desert should be developed as an alternative site for the Indian wild ass.

While driving through the Rann, all you see is flat land and the sky and often mirages. When you see waterbodies teeming with birds, it is a surprise. The Rann's strategic location and connection to the Gulf of Kutch make it a rich habitat for 97 species of water birds and 81 species of terrestrial birds. Nine migratory bird species also visit the Rann. The Rann also has a unique saline grassland called Banni where endemic salt-tolerant grasses grow.

The feet of an Agaria girl, weathered by the salty terrain.-

"Biodiversity in these areas has remained remarkably intact because of cultural values, social controls and indigenous knowledge, which are maintained and enforced by community institutions such as panchayats," says Prof. Anil K. Gupta from Sristi, an organisation that works to build local knowledge. "Community-managed areas also harbour a large part of Gujarat's domestic biodiversity and agro-biodiversity. The survival of indigenous varieties of cattle, sheep, horse and crops is linked with the continuation of these areas."

The Little Rann of Kutch was once part of the Gulf of Kutch. It is a unique seasonal wetland; it remains totally submerged during the monsoon, but transforms into a desert for the rest of the year. During the monsoon, tidal waters and water from rivers such as the Banas, the Rupen and the Saraswati flood the mudflats. This intermingling of waters makes the Rann a vast fishing ground during the monsoon, particularly for prawns. A narrow highland near Adesar connects the Little Rann to the Great Rann of Kutch.

Fossils from Jurassic times are found on some islands, so the region also has tremendous geological importance. The government plans to make it a biosphere reserve - where the needs of people and the environment are considered in conservation management.

Although the Little Rann was declared a sanctuary in 1973, the decision has not been implemented because the government still has not settled the claims of the 50,000 Agarias and 8,650 fishermen here. Until settlement is complete, the Forest Department cannot take measures to manage or protect the sanctuary.

As we drive through the Rann in an old, battered jeep, Devjibhai Dhamecha, a local naturalist, tells us: "Tourists want to see the lion in Gir, but no one is interested in wild asses. That's why Gir's protected area is 1,100 sq km but has 600 forest staff. That's two people for each lion. The Little Rann is spread across 5,000 sq km but we have only 35 persons posted here. And they can't do much to control growth here because the settlement of the sanctuary hasn't been completed in the last 30 years."

Decades of unregulated development have taken their toll on the ecosystem. Grazing cattle and sheep have eaten into space where wild animals forage. Wild ass expert Nita Shah, one of the authors of the GEER report, says that changes in land use patterns in the villages surrounding the Little Rann have resulted in more wildlife-animal conflict. Unregulated vehicle traffic within the Little Rann has also disturbed bird and animal life.

The GEER Foundation report says that "[unregulated growth of] salt works have resulted in the loss of habitat, hindered the movement of wildlife, increased disturbance levels and threatened the breeding site of flamingos". One-third of the salt produced in Gujarat (which is the country's largest salt producer) is made in the Little Rann. The rights of salt-makers cannot be ignored. The GEER report, funded by the Gujarat Forest Department, proposed that salt pans be restricted to seven zones on the outskirts of the sanctuary, leaving the interiors for wildlife. The government says it is planning to implement it once the settlement process is complete. However, Pradeep Khanna, Gujarat's Chief Conservator of Forests, was reluctant to talk about any details regarding the settlement process.

The land in the Little Rann does not belong to individuals. But the government has granted leases allowing people, societies and even companies to manufacture salt. While individuals have leases that extend from 10 to 20 years, companies have longer leases, one stretching up to 100 years. Only those salt workers holding leases issued before January 12, 1973, will be considered `legal' while settling claims. A large majority, considered `illegal', will lose their only source of livelihood. Moreover, the rights of those who have sub-leased salt pans from merchants may have no legal standing.

A mud hut made over a pit dug in the ground, near a salt pan.-

If given another option, they would gladly give up salt harvesting. Still exploited by traders and middlemen, they have no way out of the grind. "They live like slaves in a free country. They are totally tied to merchants for getting leases and loans, buying diesel for their pumps, and finally selling the salt," says Dhamecha, who also comes from an Agaria family. "Agarias sell their salt for 60 paise a kg, but the market price is Rs.6 a kg, so you can imagine the extent of exploitation." Earnings from the salt pans are diminishing, as the water table falls and the salt-makers have to spend more to pump water. Some have had to abandon salt pans half way through the salt-producing process because there was not enough water. Salt pans have become an even more risky venture.

For the first time, Premji Muladia has to dig a second well in his salt pan. The first one ran dry. He is expecting lower production this year. "The water this year isn't as saline, so I think I will get only 750 tonnes this year. Last year I got 950 tonnes. I won't have any money left at the end of the season," he says. "Expenses are increasing because there is less water. Even after putting in so much work, we may not get much salt."

As the government keeps delaying the settlement and the putting of a proper co-existence plan into practice, people like Premji Muladia and their endangered ecosystem are treading a thin line for survival. They need more than just salt to sustain them.

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