By Kinjal Doshi
At the turn of the century it is natural for thinkers in the society to take a hard look at the achievements and failures in its pursuits for the development of mankind. The society is entering into a new era and thus the significance of an outline heightens. The 37th Indian Labour Conference was held on May 18 and 19, 2001 at Delhi. The agenda of the conference included four items of which workers safety was one. The workers in modern industries constitute the neglected and the vulnerable element of the population.
Salt is the key item of human consumption and since Gandhiji’s famous protest against the Indian Salt Act in 1930, the commodity has occupied a special place in India’s socio-political context. India is the world’s fourth largest producer and a major exporter. The brine marshes of Gujarat alone cater to around 70% of it. The state of Gujarat, in India, has been in existence since more than the past 10 centuries, although its geographic boundaries changed a great deal. The largest producer in the nation, a host of contradictions follow its repute. Though the salt industry has advanced since independence, making it is now considered one of the oldest traditional activity and livelihood sources of many communities. The total number of labourers engaged in salt production is more than 3 lakh. They form the most unorganised form of workers. The inland salt workers, known as “agariyas” migrate to the Little Rann of Kutch for more than 6 months with the families while the marine salt workers, migrate towards the sea coast.
The word “salt” generally refers to common salt or sodium chloride that is physiologically absolutely necessary for human life. In a country like India, known for its geographical diversity, salt is produced from various sources: seawater to mining deposits, using diverse techniques.
Appearing as item No.58 of the union list of the seventh schedule, it falls under the list of Central subjects in the Indian Constitution. It has been declared as an item of food under the Essential Commodities Act, 1955. The Salt Cess Act of 1953 is the governing legislation for the industry. The Act is implemented through the Salt Commissioner’s Organisation, Ministry of Commerce and Industry, Government of India. Production during the year 2005 was 199.23 lakh tons. The private sector was the dominant producer with the contribution of around 98% of the salt production.
The Agrariya community in Gujarat has been living there for centuries, knowing just one means of living- salt production. Throughout their lives the members of the agrariya community work tirelessly in the fields of the Rann of Kutch, where they grow salt, amounts to 75% of the country’s demand. But fulfilling India’s salt needs comes with a price, the salt pan workers face hazardous working conditions.
The workers, working in different clusters, are one of the most disadvantaged groups in the state. Most work as wage earners and do not have any influence within the its value chain. Consequently, there is an absolute lack of standardised wages and work conditions in the industry. Even the smallest of communities, if denied basic rights to subsistence, deserve attention, from legislation or other. The workers in the saltpans across the country, their needs being sui generis, need a special legislation.
The salt producing season begins with the closure of monsoon in October and lasts till June the next year. Thus during the season the workers are required to be present at the site, the Rann of Kutch. A major problem now faced by the salt pan workers ascend out of the migratory nature of their occupation. Since the community lives a dual existence and its existence depends on seasonal rains, the plethora of vulnerabilities is obvious. The socio-economic condition of the workers is very bad. The destination of migration is isolated areas for production, which leads to vulnerabilities like lack of health facilities, water, education, market, social life, road, electricity etc. In the past few years, with focused intervention and welfare measures by state governments and other organisations, the situation in Gujarat has considerably improved. Agariya Heet Rakshak Manch ( AHRM) , a forum of salt pan workers, has mediated to create space for the workers community to raise their voices. However bigger challenges still remain unsolved like improving returns of labour, create market accessibility and value additional process.
Most of the pan workers come from the impoverished Koli and Chuvaliya tribes. Working as bonded labourers in harsh conditions, they generally die young. Working in extreme temperatures without any protective gear against exposure to sun and salt, many agariyas suffer from blindness and skin diseases. According to a report prepared by the Union Ministry of Labour title “Working and living conditions of Salt workers in India” it has been in writing about the grievances of these pan workers. The children born to these parents also suffer from ailments right from the birth since their parents have worked barefoot, open to occupational dangers. Most of the workers suffer from health hazards like burns, blisters, callosities, fissures, wart in legs and feet, keatodermia, atrophic scars, high blood pressure, skin cancer etc. life expectancy among this community is found to be relatively low. They suffer from womb to tomb in silence. “We produce the most important food ingredient, but we are never given importance. Poverty is our fate” complaint a pan worker.
The wages of these
pan workers are also kept low and thus have no chance to escape the vicious cycle of poverty and poor health. Also for such a community, the visitation of natural disasters serves to degrade their misery. The agariyas are no different, with their already difficult life made tougher by natural disasters – cyclone in 1998, droughts in 1999 and 2000 and the deadly earthquake in 2001. To put on more salt to their grievances, unseasonal rains wash away the productions of salts manufactured by the workers. A major problem of this industry is that of timely transport of harvested salt form Gujarat to other areas. During the peak season, the railway wagons unable to provide racks. The freight charges are high, thus affecting their revenues and the workers.
“If you are a salt pan worker, you have three ways to die: first gangrene, second tuberculosis or third blindness. In every house, people die this way only.” – Saying among salt pan workers
There is an urgent need to provide some assistance to these voiceless, powerless and resource less citizens of the nation. The SALT WORKERS WELFARE BILL, 2012, seeks to provide for setting up of the Salt workers Welfare fund to be utilised for rehabilitation purposes and also for setting up a Board to administer the funds in order to provide basic amenities to the workers and their families. Clause 3 of the Bill provides for setting up of a Salt Workers Welfare Board. Clause 4 provides, inter alia, for undertaking census and maintaining a register of salt workers, issuing identity cards and other such necessities. Clause 5 provides for setting up of a Salt Workers Welfare Fund with and initial corpus of rupees five hundred crore to be utilised for their welfare. The Bill therefore if enacted would involve expenditure from the Consolidated Fund of India. Also under this bill would the workers receive a safe working environment having basic amenities like potable drinking water, mobile clinics, protective gears, goggles, face masks, modern equipment for salt making, sanitation and rest sheds. Also unemployment after the peak season is a hurdle to development. So the government will ensure that the workers have alternate employment in the lean seasons.
Nevertheless the Gujarat Government has in recent years come up with certain measures to aid the Agariyas. These include setting up of around 45 workers welfare centres for primary health, education and cultural development. Moreover in the light of deprivation on the children of these workers, 50 “Balvadis” have been set up near temporary residences of the salt workers. Also to guarantee medical safety, first aid boxes have been provided at work sites itself.
The central government under the 12th five year plan has come up with schemes- Namak Mazdoor Swasthya Bima Yojana(NMSBY) and Training for technology up gradation. The NMSBY, a central scheme floated in 2005 to provide housing to agariyas but has been the subject of controversy, with the NGO’s tasked with the concentration of houses has received complaints for poor quality construction and corrupt allotment.
For an ancient community that has made its living over the centuries from production of a fundamentally essential commodity to modern production techniques, the issues mentioned above arise from the lop-sided development of the state. The workers are yet to be freed, from their illiteracy, penury, and vulnerability and financial insecurity. They are unaware of the constitutional rights they hold, but these rights to them seem hollow promises. The question is therefore, can a political movement of workers remain divorced from these issues of health, safety, employment, training and labour organisation?
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