The Agariyas start arriving by October, when the monsoon leaves behind the Little Rann of Kutch as a mud desert. They keep coming till April to mine salt in this 5,000-sq. km marsh in the west of Gujarat, the State which produces roughly three-fourths of the salt that India consumes.
Thakarshi Bababhai Sankhalpura, 55, of the nomadic tribe says they arrive from places such as Banaskantha, Patan, Surendranagar, Rajkot, Morbi, Amreli and Kutch. The Agariya families now number 12,000 to 15,000 in Gujarat.
With temperatures ranging from five to 50 degrees Celsius, high wind velocity and high soil salinity, the Little Rann of Kutch is an ideal place to mine salt. Using traditional knowledge, the Agariyas divine a salt-rich area and then dig a hole to draw out the saline water and channel it to a bed that becomes the salt pan. From 6 a.m., they start work, using diesel pumps for 18 hours to draw water and maintain the water level of the pan. Then they drop a type of grass in the water to help crystallisation. After a week or so, expert workers like Thakarshi Bababhai use a wooden implement, called dantalo in Kutchi, to comb the water for two hours each in the morning and afternoon so that the salt does not harden into slabs. Small and medium factories buy salt from the Agariyas. As the summer peaks and the temperatures soar to above 50 degrees Celsius, they stop work and leave.The tribe derives its name from the word agar, meaning salt farms. Their staple food is bajri no rotlo (millet roti) and mag ni dal (green whole moong), washed down with buttermilk. Conditions in the desert are harsh without electricity and water.
Home to a rare breed of wild ass and visiting flamingos, the desert has been designated a wildlife sanctuary by the Gujarat government. Voluntary organisations such as the Agariya Heet Rakshaks Manch strive to protect the interests of these workers. Harinesh Pandiya of the organisation says it helps out with solar panels for power supply and facilities such as Internet vans for the Agariyas to stay connected with the outside world.