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, who have lived here for centuries, knowing just one means of livelihood – salt farming. 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.
During the monsoon months, the Rann of Kutch becomes submerged in sea water. As the water begins to recede 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, then 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 the day, which often dips to 4 degrees in the night, the Agariyas live for six or seven months in the shacks beside their salt flats. Children begin working in the salt pans from the age of 10.
Production averages 12-15 tons every 15 days from each of the salt pans, and is sent to salt companies and chemical factories across the country. The Agariyas earn a paltry sum of Rs. 60 ($0.90) per ton. The market price of industrial salt is Rs. 4000 per ton while domestic salt sells for Rs. 5500 per ton.
The low incomes 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. The salt workers remain generationally indebted to the salt merchants.
And the price of working for years in the harsh conditions is very high – skin lesions, severe eye problems due to intense reflections off the white surfaces, and tuberculosis. A salt worker of Kutch seldom lives beyond 60. When they die, their abnormally thin legs, stiff with years of exposure to highly saturated salt, do not burn in the funeral pyre. Rather, the legs are collected by their relatives and are buried separately in a small grave with salt so that they can decompose naturally.
Sugato Mukherjee is a photographer and writer based in Calcutta and his works have appeared in The Globe and Mail, Al Jazeera, National Geographic Traveler, Harper Collins and Yale University Journal. His coffee table book on Ladakh has been published from Delhi in 2013. Some of his visuals and stories can be found at http://sugatomukherjee.zenfolio.com/