Nomadic tribals, who annually travel to the Little Rann of Kutch in Gujarat to mine salt, are being exploited by traders who profit handsomely from their hard labor, claimed an activist at the Association for India’s Development annual conference held May 26-27 in Burlingame, Calif.
Pankti Jog, the keynote speaker on the first day of the conference, movingly detailed the plight of the Agariya community, who has mined salt in the harsh, desert region for at least 600 years. The workers are paid as little as 22 paise per kilo for salt which is then sold on the market for more than Rs. 15 per kilo, according to Jog.
“This is huge exploitation,” declared Jog in an interview with India-West after her keynote speech. “This is bonded labor going on for generations,” she said, explaining that the workers take out loans for salt pans, food and crude shelter, indebting themselves and their children to the traders who sell their salt.
About three-quarters of the salt India consumes is harvested there, largely by hand, without machinery or chemicals. Children do much of the panning work, noted Jog.
More than 43,000 Agariyas temporarily migrate to the Little Rann of Kutch every September to May, after the monsoon is over. There is no permanent housing; the workers build temporary shelters each year. Potable water is scarce, according to Jog; health care facilities are even scarcer.
The area is not an “official” district, so the government of India has no jurisdiction over it and thus remains unconcerned about the needs of the workers who migrate there each year, she said.
AID and Jog are working to secure basic rights for the Agariyas in the Little Rann of Kutch, including health supplies and immunizations, water facilities and food security.
AID has also created 22 schools in the region, each of which have enrolled 25 children. There are no other schools in the district, according to Jog.
“We are concentrating on the next generation,” she proclaimed, noting that 100 children from AID schools in the area have gone on to college. One boy has gone on to graduate school and is working on his masters’ degree in economics, according to Jog. “He is our hero,” she said.
AID is also working on economic empowerment for the Agariya community, attempting to link the workers directly to the market so that they can get a fair price for their salt.
“There’s little incentive for the traders to change the way they operate, because it generates huge profits for themselves,” Jog told India-West. “The community has to have the power to negotiate with traders.”
Most importantly, said the activist, “We have to break the chains of loans to break the cycle of poverty.”
Jog and AID have also developed a project to give rural dwellers access to the Right to Information Act, passed by the Indian Parliament in 2005.
“This is a wonderful piece of legislation, with very simple provisions to address the grievances of common people. We wanted to take it to the grassroots level,” said Jog, who was instrumental in creating “RTI on Wheels,” a van which goes around to villages in 18 states and allows rural dwellers to fill out applications to address concerns regarding pension, housing, questions of bribery and other issues. Volunteers help villagers file their applications, then follow up and appeal, if necessary.
Since its inception in 2008, “RTI on Wheels” has reached 500,000 villagers in 4,000 villages, estimated Jog, adding that state governments are now taking on the concept themselves.
Harsh Mander, a former Indian Administrative Services officer who gave up his post after the 2002 riots in Gujarat, was the keynote speaker for the second day of the AID conference, and spoke about massive malnourishment throughout India.
“India is the poorest country in the world and yet has the largest number of millionaires. There are extraordinary levels of economic growth, but also of hunger,” Mander told India-West after his speech.
“It is a challenge to understand this paradox and respond to it,” he said. Bangladesh and countries in sub-Saharan Africa are poorer than India, but also better at battling hunger, claimed Mander, an activist and journalist.
Malnourishment in India is seen as a necessary outcome for the country’s pattern of growth, with a diminishment of resources for farmers, including grabs of agrarian land for commercial use, he said.
According to Save the Children India, almost half of India’s children are under-nourished, and seven million Indian children are severely malnourished, near death. Two million children in India die each year from malnutrition, and one out of every four infant deaths worldwide is Indian.
“This is the failure of government,” proclaimed Mander. “We have the money, the food, a democratic system, and strong state distribution. With all of those assets, we still have not managed to turn around the problem,” he said.
Later that evening, Mander and Jog debated the issue of communalism in India.
“I am frequently struck, as a visitor to this country, that people take for granted certain rights here, but are the withholders of those very rights in their own country. There’s a certain irony there,” Mander told this newspaper after his talk.
“The equal protection of law for all regardless of faith and respecting our differences – the defense of those ideals should be important to Indians wherever we live,” he said.
Other panels at the AID conference focused on issues and new developments in agriculture and health.
AID was founded in 1991 by Ravi Kuchimanchi, while he was a graduate student at the University of Maryland, and his wife Aravinda Pillalamarri. The non-profit organization currently has development projects in 18 Indian states.