This article was first published by the Mint newspaper on February 9, 2017.
Dear Indian citizen,
I live in the Little Rann of Kutch (LRK), along Gujarat’s western coast and spend eight months in India’s salt desert where my family, part of the Agariya tribe, extracts salt. From September to April, the entire region is a big salt desert, but May onwards it becomes really hot and then it begins to rain, turning the salt desert into a large swamp-like area. In May, we move to the periphery of the LRK to our village.
My village is called Vasrajpura, one of 32 villages around the LRK. The place where we live is part of the Indian wild ass sanctuary. Around 5,000 beautiful donkeys live here and though we take care of them, the forest department wants us to leave this place. They keep talking about a Forest Act, under which we are causing harm to the donkeys, but I’ve never seen anybody from our tribe harming a donkey.
I don’t think the forest department understands that if we actually leave this place, the sanctuary won’t survive, for the poachers will kill all the donkeys.
According to the forest department, the Agariya number less than 1,000, which is incorrect since our numbers are at least five times that.
Do you want a sneak peak at our lives here? You’ll actually notice a lot of contrasts between our lives and yours. You consume, we produce. You use, we innovate. You throw, we reuse. You live in abundance, we live with necessities. You live to eat, we eat to live. Your desire is your need, our need is our desire. You live in nuclear families, we live in joint families. Your memory is stored in machines, our memory is stored in our practices.
I have never gone to a formal school, nor do I expect to now. No one from my family, or for that matter my tribe, has attended a formal school either. Yet, we do things that will take you a decade to learn. As a family of 5-7 members, we produce about 800 tonnes of salt in a season, which is then sold at Rs80 per tonne.
All our homes are built from rugs, jute sacks, bamboo sticks, wooden sticks, thatch and plastic bags. But we hardly sleep in at night. It’s only during the day, when it’s too hot that we sit inside. My parents tell me that we don’t need to throw away things. For example, we reuse old tyres to turn them into seats or swings. We have a television set and music system too, and we produce our own electricity to run them, using a dynamo, a pumping set and diesel. The pumping set which is used to draw water from the underground saline well runs the dynamo, which generates electricity.
Did I tell you about our motorbikes? There are a lot of second-hand bikes in our community. Almost every household has one because we have to cover long distances. Even our village is 10-30km away from the salt mining area in the Little Rann of Kutch.
And that’s the closest habitation of any sort for us. All our bikes are modified to run on petrol and kerosene.
Though I don’t go to a school that even remotely resembles yours, we do have some school-like places here—17 of them actually. Our “schools” are made of bamboo and sacks, and have rugs for us to sit on. Every morning, our parents drop us off at one of these schools for a few hours. Sometimes I think the schools are just an excuse to keep the children busy, but our education is deeply rooted in our culture and we learn to care for the environment and live equitably.
I hear you can’t see the stars in your city. That’s sad because I enjoy counting them at night when I sleep under the open sky. My father tells me that our air is also much cleaner to breathe than what you have.
Yet we—the Agariya tribe—are part of a population that has never been surveyed; we have never been part of any Census. On paper, none of our families exist but we receive a casual mention or attention sometimes from the state government. For example, every Agariya is supposed to get an Agariya Orakha Card. We call it the Chopadi in our native language. Under the Chopadi, we are supposed to get a few entitlements like safety boots, safety caps, sunglasses, gloves, a water tank, a bicycle—all of these are to be given to us to work in the salt pan. However, my parents tell me, one has to wait for years to get a Chopadi. My parents haven’t got one till now.
There is so much more to tell you about our daily lives, but I think you should visit us someday to experience it. We would be delighted to learn something new from you and I’m sure you will also get to learn something from us. And if you want another reason to visit us, you can buy salt from us! You will be able to buy it in quintals for the same price you pay for a few kilograms of salt in your city.
An uncounted boy.