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Photo: Reuters
Photo: Reuters

Including the Agariyas

In the Little Rann of Kutch in Gujarat, mirrors are one way to reach out to each other

In this era of real-time communication where mobile phones in many ways define the human experience, there’s still a place in our country where people communicate with each other by way of reflecting mirrors. In the Little Rann of Kutch in Gujarat, mirrors are one way to reach out to each other.

According to the salt department of India (bit.ly/1UaTNh3) about 76% of the total salt produced in India comes from Gujarat. And the Little Rann (the Kutch desert is divided into the Little Rann and the Great Rann) in Gujarat has a role to play in this.

The 4,953 sq. km Little Rann, home to about 3,500 families belonging to the Agariya (salt worker) community, is known as India’s “Survey Number Zero" because no land survey has been conducted here since the British left. Several attempts have been made by activists working in the region to get government officials to come and see the living conditions here.

Yet, the majority of the Agariyas continue to live a life of virtual non-identity and are mostly paid poorly by middlemen for their labour.

The entire Little Rann was notified as a wildlife sanctuary in 1973 and, since 2006, exists inside a wild ass sanctuary. The forest department wants the Agariyas to leave. The department claims that there are no more than 300 Agariya families, who will be rehabilitated if they agree to move out.

The Agariyas are pacifists who do not in any way harm the endemic wild asses that number some 5,000. The animals, incidentally, can’t survive in the salt desert, and usually take shelter on the periphery of the sanctuary to graze and feed in places where the Agariyas have their farms.

The Agariya community is a de-notified tribe scheduled that has been farming salt for centuries, generation after generation. In their language, agar means salt and those who farm it are called Agariyas. Their lives are divided into two: eight months in the saltpans and the remaining four in villages on the periphery of the Little Rann.

From September to almost June, the entire Little Rann area turns dry and arid. This is when the Agariyas come to the desert and put up their shacks and reclaim their traditionally demarcated wells to produce salt. The Little Rann is submerged under rain water for four months, when the Agariyas return to the villages on its periphery.

This peculiar lifestyle means that their children hardly ever get a chance to go to school. When I visited the Little Rann, I got a chance to see about 17 schools made of rugs and sacks around the area of about 10-20 km from Patadi block headquarters of Surendra Nagar district.

These schools are supported by an Ahmedabad-based forum for voluntary organizations called Janpath.

When a volunteer teacher comes to any of the 10x10 ft cubicle schools made from jutes and sacks, the teacher bounces off sunlight through a piece of mirror in all directions, informing Agariyas living in the huts nearby to send their children. The children are then dropped off on motorbikes by their fathers or other men of the family.

In 2016, the challenge is how to utilize digital tools to help the Agariyas to assert their identity, prove their existence to the government system and improve their communication.

Together with Janpath and several active Agariya members, we sat and agreed to do a few simple things. The first was to develop a location-based census app to survey the Agariyas in the salt desert as well as in the village. It would be necessary to ensure the surveys are done by the Agariya community members through computer tablets.

The digital census would be designed with official norms of census, but additionally will include location details and photos. It would be with the help of school children who will also be made digitally literate thanks to this plan.

Secondly, we want to broadcast by broadband Internet from Patadi block in Surendranagar district, headquarter to most of the government schools in and around Little Rann to all schools using wireless technologies like Line of Sight and use of unlicensed spectrum such as 2.4 gigahertz and 5.8 gigahertz. Each school will have a customized single-rod tower with a receiving and relaying modem.

We propose to have a motorcycle mounted with a carrier for transporting four to six tablets. The motorcycle will go from school, spending about two hours in each with children. It will cover three schools a day.

In a week, the bike will cover all the 17 schools in the area and each school children will have access to content through the Internet. This will be the start of their digital literacy education.

We also aim to provide a centralized digital resource center connected with broadband for the exclusive use of the Agariya community for all their day-to-day needs of information. And finally, we want to organize the Agariyas into self-help groups and use the digital communication medium to help them to understand their market and work for themselves rather than traders.

With the intervention of digital tools, we are hoping that the community will gradually reclaim their status of salt farmers rather than being referred to as saltpan workers with legal identity of existence.

What is now needed is some philanthropic fund to support these ideas which can help the Agariyas leave behind the morass of poverty and disempowerment and find for themselves a place in mainstream India.

Osama Manzar is founder-director of the Digital Empowerment Foundation and chair of the Manthan and mBillionth awards. He is co-author of NetCh@kra – 15 Years of Internet in India and Internet Economy of India.

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