The earth is cracked and the horizon bare. The deathly silence is broken by the occasional whirring of crude-oil pumps. Women, going about their daily life in bright mirror-work lehangas, add a dash of colour to an otherwise arid background. This tough terrain has dominted 50-year-old Shantabhai Maganbhai Bamania's life since he was 10. Shantabhai is an Agaria, a salt worker. The Rann of Kutch in Gujarat is his home to him and his family for eight months a year, from September to April. The remaining four months they spend in Kharagoda. Not just Shantabhai, the Rann of Kutch is home to more than 100,000 workers like him for eight months a year, who come from villages 30 to 40 kms away.
A 2006 report of a Union ministry of environment and forests-World Bank project, Biodiversity Conservation and Rural Livelihood Improvement, notes that nearly 60 per cent Agarias live below the poverty line.Their livelihood has been under threat ever since the Little Rann of Kutch (the Rann is divided into the Little Rann and the Great Rann) was notified as a wildlife sanctuary in 1973 to protect the wild ass. In 2006, the salt workers were served eviction notices.
The saltmaking Agarias do not understand why they are being asked to go, leaving behind an occupation they have been involved in for centuries. Where is the conflict, they ask. Even forest officials are unable to show any evidence of conflict. According to the forest department's own census, the population of wild asses has gone up beyond what is called "the safe level to achieve the objective of conservation.' Despite such a success story forest officials are rigid when it comes to the marginalised Agarias: since the area has been declared a sanctuary there cannot be any human population there, say officials.
The Agarias' vulnerability stems from the fact that they have no land deeds. No survey has ever taken place in the Little Rann of Kutch since independence; it does not figure in government revenue records. Revenue department records in fact refer to the area as Survey Number Zero.
During monsoon, water from the Arabian Sea floods the Rann converting it into a lake. In September, when the waters recede, it's time for Agarias from the 107 villages around the Little Rann to move in. Mud huts come up in Survey Number Zero, where Agarias stay till spring, making the Vadagara variety of salt