Thursday, March 14, 2019
By Pankti Jog*
Agariyas from Dhangadhra and Patadi, the towns situated along the Little Rann of Kutch in Gujarat, may not participate in voting on April 23, the day polling takes place in the state, as a mark of protest against an “insensitive step” that the Indian Railways has taken – to close down the Kuda-Dhangadhra Railway line and uproot the track.
They have been farming crystal salt in the Little Rann for over 600 years. This has been one of the oldest traditional production systems in the region. During the British rule, a railway line was laid down right up to the Little Rann in order to facilitate the transportation of salt. There were schools for kids, and pipeline for the supply of drinking water, too.
On March 12, the Dandi Satyagraha Day, we proudly remembered how a pinch of salt played a key role in shaking up the British empire in India. Ironically, on the same day, the Railways began the work of removing the track of the Dhangadhra-Kuda railway line, which is Agariyas of the Little Rann consider as their lifeline, as it helps them transport salt from their salt farms.
“The Railways told us that they are closing down this line as it is not making profit. But how can the government forget that this railway line is giving livelihood to thousands of Agariyas in the Little Rann and giving over 30 lakh tonnes of salt per year to the rest of the country?”, wondered Bharat Somera, district coordinator, Surendranagar, Agariya Heet Rakshak Manch (AHRM), a civil rights organization representing Agariyas of Gujarat.
“Agariyas made several representations to both state and Central governments, and also to the committee formed by the Railways which came for the site visit last year for inspection. But they appear to have ignored us”, Somera regretted.
“It is worth recalling that when the railway line was repaired a few years ago, contributions from salt cess were also made, as this railway line benefits the transportation of salt. And yet, Agariyas were not consulted before the officials of the Railways took the decision to uproot the tracks”, he added.
Agariya representatives with district election officer, Surendranagar
“We did not expect such an insensitive approach and step from the government towards Agariyas’ livelihood. By closing down the cheapest transport mode, the government is ruining our livelihood and life”, said an Agariya salt farmer.
“Of all days, they chose March 12, the 89th anniversary of the Dandi march, to start removing the tracks laid down to help us”, he said, adding, “We all are terribly disappointed and have approached the District Election Officer to inform him that we are not going to participate in voting.”
“Over 18,000 to 20,000 Agariyas, including their family members, might not vote in protest against this cruel decision of the Indian Railways, implemented ahead of the elections,” said Harinesh Pandya, founder, Mahiti Adhikar Gujarat Pahel (MAGP), the state’s civil rights watchdog for the Right to Information (RTI) Act.
Significantly, MAGP is currently involved in the Matadar Jagruti Jumbesh 2019, a campaign for maximizing voter turnout on April 23, the day Gujarat goes to polls, and ethical voting. “We too have drawn attention of the District Election Officer about this thoughtless act and hope he would take appropriate action”, Pandya added.
In a written representation on March 12, sarpanches of several villages of Dhangadhra taluka have supported the Agariyas, and urged the state and Central governments to immediately look into the matter. If the government fails to address this issue immediately, Agariyas will go on strike, the sarpanches have warned.
*With Mahiti Adhikar Gujarat Pahel, Ahmedabad