Gujarat salt workers fight for rights – and for wild ass

By V.N. Balakrishna, IANS

Kharaghoda (Gujarat), Dec. 30, 2008 |  A motley group of salt workers near the desert of Kutch in Gujarat have resorted to satyagraha – espoused by Mahatma Gandhi in another salt struggle in the last century – to fight for their rights to produce salt and also to protect the endangered wild ass.

The 400-odd agariyas, as salt workers are known locally, from Kharaghoda village, over 400 km from Gujarat’s main city Ahmedabad, launched an indefinite protest Dec 16 after their former employer and state-run Hindustan Saltworks Limited (HSL) gave away 3,100 acres of land on sub-lease to Brahmani Matha Namak Udyog Pvt Ltd (BMNUPL), a Chennai-based private company.

A week later, HSL was forced to suspend its operations. A team from the HSL headquarters in Jaipur talked with the striking workers and negotiations have been on.

The workers have also demanded payment of minimum wages, fixed at Rs.200 a day, and arrears for the past four years.

On Monday, HSL senior manager (accounts) P.C. Kamath and K.S. Mehta, a senior company official from Jaipur, met Surendranagar district collector J.D. Bhad.

Kamath expected a solution in “two-three days”. Bhad said district officials will visit the HSL site and try to sort out the issue soon.

The case of HSL, a loss-making unit, has been before the Board for Industrial and Financial Reconstruction (BIFR) and it offered its employees a voluntary retirement scheme (VRS) as per the BIFR rules, Kamath said.

“We had 900 employees in 1998 and only 97 had remained after the VRS. Having no money, HSL gave them land out of its huge reserve of 23,000 acres for making salt. However, after BMNUPL came in the picture, vested interested began instigating salt workers, telling them that the company would make more and better quality salt and snatch their livelihood,” Kamath told IANS.

However, Sukhdev Patel, founder-president of the Salt Workers’ Welfare Forum, said: “It is not simply a question of settlement for 97 HSL salt workers. It is also about damage to the ecology and those 2,000 salt workers who are out of the HSL purview whose work has been hit because of the sub-lease of HSL land.

“It is also about the last refuge of the endangered Asiatic wild ass. The animals will have to take a 25-km detour if a 20-km long mudwall that HSL is building (surrounding the sub-leased land for demarcation) is completed,” said Patel.

He said he was waiting for the state and the central governments’ next steps in this case.

“Let us see if the HSL delegation that is arriving on Monday takes a holistic view of the problems. We want a settlement that also saves the precarious biosphere,” said Patel.

Pointing to the under-construction wall, Dilubhai Mopabhai Umariya, an HSL worker and president of the salt workers’ association, said: “The massive wall threatens our livelihood. Our work has been at a standstill for the past week.”

Devjibhai Dhamecha, honorary president of the Dhrangadhra Prakriti Mandal, an environmental NGO, said: “We filed a PIL (public interest litigation) in the Gujarat High Court on Dec 17.”

The court has served a notice to the state’s forest department and ordered a stay on the heavy machinery work in the area.

“We have raised many issues regarding HSL’s right to sub-lease land and to build the enormous wall. This area has been declared by the Gujarat government as Kutch Biosphere Reserve (KBR) but the company is ignoring this,” said Dhamecha, who is also a founding member of the Gujarat Ecological Education and Research (GEER) Foundation, and a wildlife photographer.

Kharaghoda agariyas produce salt once a year by pumping underground brine with small pumps from 40 feet below the ground level into pans. It takes four months for the salt to crystallise. They sell the produce for eight to 11 paise a kg – in contrast to salt sold in retail shops at Rs.7-10 a kg, Dhamecha said.

But the new company, BMNUPL, uses modern equipment and is pumping water from the depth of 300 feet, thus sucking away groundwater in this desert area, he pointed out.


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