Salt , Sands, Sun , Sharda , Smiles and Sweetened tea..
Sharda is a six year old girl I recently had the privilege of meeting. Sharda is a scrawny, reed thin, unschooled, ‘malnutritioned’, hardworking, intelligent young girl. She runs around bare feet clad in a tattered and frayed old dress. I met her deep inside the Little Rann of Kutch , where she stays with her parents in ,what you could call a hut. Her abode did have a roof and some walls. She stays there helping her parents make salt for about eight months of a year.
She seemed to have multiple vitamin deficiencies and was deeply sun burnt and had seemingly boundless energy as she showed me around her salt pan very proudly. She did have the most ravishing smile which went straight to your heart. She was part of the Agariyas- a clan devoted to salt making down the ages in the Kharaghoda area in the Little Rann.
I was told that the Agariyas live in several villages by the rim of the Kutch. They migrate into the interiors of the Kutch around July – August and stay there till about March for the salt production. I gathered that about 25% of India’s salt production comes from this area. Each of the families looks after a salt field and there are thousands of such families scattered all over the vast tracts of the Kutch. They first, have to prepare the salt fields. The raw surface needs hardening and embankments have to be raised. Each of the pans is about 200 x 250 feet. A shallow well is dug in and locally made “Rajkot “pumps, which operate on crude oil, are used to pump the water up into the first of the pans. The water which is very rich in salt is circulated over the next couple of weeks through narrow channels from one pan to the other and the salt keeps getting concentrated and at the end of about a fortnight, roughly 10-15 tonnes of salt are produced.
Sharda is an expert, like her father, in this process of salt making. She has an instinct about the optimum temperature of water and handles the pump efficiently and does a great job in helping her parents top the pump with oil. She knows when is the right time to complete the salt making cycle. She cannot spell her name; she does not know what school is; she walks once a week with her parents about 10 kilometers to have a bath- there is no fresh water in the midst of the Kutch. Her day sees temperatures rising to 45 degrees under the scorching sun and dropping to about 5 degrees at night with howling winds and occasional storms. She has her parents and the stars for company.
She tells me proudly that her father earns four thousand rupees a month. She accepted with great joy my humble offering of a bar of chocolate, Frooti and an orange.
She would not let me go without a gift in return – she insisted that her mother make me a cup of black sweetened tea, which was offered with a lot of affection, in a chipped saucer and she also gave me a crystal of salt from the latest production. Sharda’s smile, the sweet tea and the salt crystal will remain with me for the rest of my life …