The Little Rann of Kutch is a salt marsh located in the Western Indian State of Gujarat in India. Far from being known around the world, even most people in India are not aware of its existence. There are no roads in the Rann. To travel here, one has to make ones way through its gigantic mud flats. This salt-bearing wilderness spreads over 5,000 sq kms and is also known as 'Survey Number Zero' because no land survey has been conducted here since the end of British rule in India. Just 600 kms from Mumbai, the commercial capital of India, this land is unknown to most. With its unique geography of a vast desolate landscape, it makes for a very distinct forest without trees. Despite its bleak countryside it is an important ecological terrain for wildlife due to its rich biodiversity. Comprising of thousands of kilometers of barren land, the Little Rann provides a safe haven to a shocking number of local and migratory birds, the endangered wild ass who's only home now is the Little Rann, and other rare and beautiful creatures. The other living creatures found in this arid land are the Agariyas or the Salt Farmers. Surrounded by mounds of tones of white salt crystals, one can easily spot them in the middle of the Rann.
In the monsoon, the Arabian Sea invades the Gulf of Kutch, blanketing the muddy flatland under knee--deep water for four months hence making it saline. A set of notifications for the Wild Ass Sanctuary in the Little Rann of Kutch was issued in 1973 under the Gujarat Wild Animals and Wild Birds Protection Act. This is what sowed the seeds of the present conflict in the Rann. It was proposed that the Sanctuary would take up an area of 4840.899 sq. kms. The second notification came in 1978 under the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, taking the total area of the sanctuary to 4,953 sq. kms and subsequently covering even more area in The Rann.
Ever since the sanctuary was declared a bio-reserve, the salt farmers have been asked to vacate their saltpans, as their profession is supposedly a hindrance to the well being of the Sanctuary. Legally speaking, any economic activity inside a bio reserve is also prohibited. The fishermen too have begun facing similar problems. The wild ass has flourished in the Little Rann over the years, say the activists. According to the Gujarat Ecological Education and research Foundation, the population of the wild ass has been increasing gradually since the 1990's and a 2010 survey stated, "There is no human-animal conflict. The salt workers, who have lived here for centuries, have co-existed peacefully with the wildlife".
Salt farmers cannot establish any legal right over the land which is now included in the Wild Ass Sanctuary, without any official survey or document. This has proved a threat to their livelihood for nearly three decades now. In an endeavor to help the Agariyas, supporting NGO's have dug out a historic 'farmaan' or ordinance issued by Mughal emperor Aurangzeb from the 17th century in which the saltpan workers find a mention.
For 8 months after the monsoon, the farmers live in the middle of the desert putting up with the chilly cold of the winter and the crippling heat of the summer. The salt they produce is "cultivated salt" which is a painstaking, tiresome process, as compared to the other salt making techniques used around the world today. Why do they continue with this technique? Simply because it is the only method they know. For nearly 600 years their ancestors have been producing salt in this region. Herein lies the exploitation factor: the merchants realize their dependence on this profession, and heavily underpay for months of manual labour in extreme climatic conditions. Barring certain patches, the soil in the Little Rann is terribly saline, and the production of most other crops is nearly impossible.
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