Rann of Kutch, India – The Agariyas tribe in Gujarat’s Rann of Kutch desert near the Arabian Sea is excited yet doubtful as to whether elections in one of India’s most industrialised states will change their fortunes.
Marked by mass illiteracy, lack of education and health facilities, and political underrepresentation, the community lives on the margins of the Gujarati society.
For eight months between mid-November and August, Agariya people live in the desert, working under extreme weather conditions, helping to produce about 76 percent of India’s salt.
They have been salt producers for generations, and consist today of around 10,000 families, comprising 45,000 people, mostly located in the Rann of Kutch region.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has projected Gujarat as a model of development worth emulating at the national level. He ran the state government for nearly 13 years until 2014.
But the model, which has been said to work on the pillars of electricity, water and sanitation for all, has provided none of these for the Agariyas.
Even though long electric lines cover the Little Rann, the Agariya homes are still without electricity, with few visible signs of the development that the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) claims.
“In Maliya [in Morbi district] itself, there is no waste disposal system, no proper school, no electricity most of the time,” said Ramesh Katesiya, a social worker from Anandi, a local NGO working among the community.
“There was a bus stand that got destroyed in the 2001 earthquake in Bhuj. They still have not reconstructed that,” said Katesiya, referring to the village closest to where the Agariyas of Morbi district live.
“He has never even been here to see which people actually live and contribute to Gujarat’s apparent progress,” he added, referring to Modi, who has extensively campaigned during the state elections.
Many Agariyas with whom Al Jazeera spoke expressed their anger against the ruling BJP party, which has been in power for most of the last 21 years.
Overlooked by the political class for decades, the Agariyas now show little enthusiasm in the election process. This year, an election campaign held by the District Collector in Surendranagar district has raised awareness of the importance of political participation.
There are no hospitals within close reach of the Agariyas, or routine check-ups by state officials to ensure their health.
In Morbi, the nearest government hospitals are 20 to 100 kilometres away from the salt farmers. There are no roads or public transport that lead inside the Rann, leaving the Agariyas stranded in times of medical emergency.
“The Agariyas live for eight months a year without electricity, basic shelter and any medicine,” Katesiya said. “Because of their laborious work, they are prone to high fevers, tuberculosis, dehydration and severe skin burns during the summer months. In the last election, the BJP won all eight seats in this region, but still, they [the government] did nothing to help the people here. Because of that, the opposition [Congress party] has begun to gain a stronghold in these parts.”
It is December, and the salt season has just begun. The sand is being pumped for brine by machines that run on diesel. The brine will then be distributed into channels, where it will cook for three months to become salt.
Because of the lack of roads and public transport into the desert, the Agariyas are forced to live in makeshift camps in the desert for eight months of the year.
Savita Dhirubhai Koli, like other members of her community, works on land of about four hectares for 12 to 14 hours a day.
During the rains, the desert sand turns into a heavy marsh, making walking or riding a motorcycle on it difficult.
“It has been a month since we arrived,” said Koli, who lives in a hut made from jute bags and tarpaulin in Gulbadi, a stretch of desert in the Morbi district. “I just finished building the house, but now that it has rained, it is very wet, and water has already settled inside.”
During the rains, water seeps in easily, and a strong wind destroys many Agariya homes.
In winters, temperatures are as low as 2 degrees, but the Agariyas, along with their children, continue to live in these desert huts that offer no protection from extreme weather conditions.
“We have nothing to keep warm,” said Raju, a salt farmer from the Agariya community from the Morbi district, around 10 kilometres from the Arabian Sea. “I have three small children. They always get sick. But what can I do?”
Salt farmers mostly work as labourers employed by middlemen or large salt firms. They make Rs 25-35 ($0.40-$0.50) for each tonne of salt they produce.
Before the season begins, the Agariyas take a loan from an informal credit system called “dhiraan”, which they pay back at the time of harvest.
At the end of eight months, they produce around 3,000 tonnes – for which, after their loan has been deducted, they make only around Rs 40,000 ($600).
“Players like Dev Salt drain the backwaters with their large machines,” said Marut, an activist with the Agariya Rashtriya Heet Manch (AHRM). “It is a threat to the smaller farms like the ones in Haripar.”
This July, severe floods hit Gujarat – and in Maliya alone, 30,000 tonnes of salt was washed away. The erratic rains have also delayed the production season, causing the Agariyas to worry that they may have to work extra days in the coming winter months.
While Agariyas were landowners in the past, the declaration of the Little Rann as Wild Ass Sanctuary in 1978 established that the government would own all the land.
“This has reduced previously land-owning Agariya families to positions of tenancy,” said Pankti Jog, an activist with the AHRM. “But even then, state support or assistance on this land or the process is absent.”
In Haripar in Morbi district, closer to the highway, mobility is easier than in other parts of the Rann. Of the around 1,500 Agariyas who work here, some have solar panels and can go back to nearby villages in case of extreme weather.
But even here, hospitals are at least 20 kilometres away, and there are no schools anywhere in sight.
“The district collector told us if we collect children, he will help us make a temporary school,” said Sunita, an Agariya who lives in Haripar. “But even if we do, where will they make the school? Who will come to teach here in the middle of the desert?”
The Agariya literacy rate is close to zero, leaving no opportunities for social mobility for the next generation.
“Our children begin working when they are 10 years old,” said Ramesh, Sunita’s husband. “If we don’t produce enough, the buyers will go to someone else, so we have to keep him happy.”
Areas of the Little Rann are also called Survey Zone Zero, as no census has been conducted here since Indian independence from the British colonial rulers in 1947.
“The absence of a census, or proper data on the Agariyas, makes it hard to know what they go through and what they need,” Jog said. “Including the Agariyas is a matter of state governance, which has not been done until now.”
In Morbi district, there is hope among the Agariyas that a new government, unlike the present BJP, may listen to their concerns.
“We will tell them we need roads, so we don’t have to live out here in the cold, and education for our children,” Ramesh said. “If the (BJP) government can build tall, expensive buildings in the city, why can’t they spare some money for our roads and homes?”
While one official in Haripar has promised to send a car to bring Agariyas to the polling station, in Gulbadi and the Rann surrounding Surendrangar district and faraway settlements, no such arrangements have been made. Moreover, the declaration of the Little Rann as a sanctuary prohibits mobile voting booths to enter it, making it impossible for Agariyas far away to participate.
“The ones who live 30 to 50 kilometres away will try to come,” Jog said. “But those 100 kilometres or so away from their villages, how will they go to vote?”
On December 9, some Agariyas will come to vote in the first phase of the elections, travelling by vehicle from the nearest possible point, and others – the more resilient – will walk.
“If I can work for 14 hours in the sun, I can walk 15 kilometres to cast a vote,” said Kumar, who lives in Gulbadi. “It is possible that nothing changes with any new government. But we have to make them notice us; maybe that will be a start.”