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A Fistful of Salt
Women, power, and progress in Gujarat
Editor’s note: As I started editing this SEA contribution, I immediately thought of a folktale I had heard as a kid in school about a princess, her father, and salt.
In trying to trace it, I discovered that it’s known loosely as “Love Like Salt” and variations of it are told all over the world, from Italy to Pakistan to Hungary. Ernst Meier’s “So lieb wie das Salz” from Deutsche Volksmärchen aus Schwaben: Aus dem Munde des Volks gesammelt (Stuttgart: C. P. Scheitlin's Verlagshandlung, 1852) offers the story particularly concisely:
As Dear as Salt
A king once asked his daughter how dear he was to her.
"As dear, as dear — as salt!" she said.
The king thought that this was very little, and he was very unhappy with his child's answer.
Soon thereafter he sponsored a great feast. The daughter saw to it that every dish was brought to the table unsalted, and thus nothing tasted good to the king.
Finally the daughter explained everything to him. He then recognized how important salt was, and that his daughter had spoken very positively. Thus he loved her again as dearly as before.
Other versions set the princess into competition with her sisters, or off into the forest to find a prince, or cast into exile as an innkeeper to learn the value of hard work, but the core message always remains the same. Salt, often overlooked and under-appreciated, is the mineral that brings taste to life; without taste, there is little joy, and without joy, there is little life. Salt, essentially, is ourselves — societies, civilizations, and sweating, crying, metabolic bodies.
As the following contribution by Zoya Naaz Rehman demonstrates, salt isn’t merely a currency of the emotional labour done by women to placate men in their lives. On the western coast of India, where the burdens and benefits of salt production are highly gendered, it’s a product of their physical labour as well. The story of the women who make much of India’s salt is notable for what it shows about artisanal labour, technological advancement, and nation-building. It also highlights how conservation policy, whatever its intentions, can disenfranchise local and/or Indigenous populations, separating them from their ecosystems and resources — again, with highly gendered outcomes. - IV
Salt plays an important role in both India’s political history and its economy, with much of its salt being produced in Gujarat. The women whose labour underpins the industry continue to preserve and innovate upon their traditional harvesting practices despite systemic discrimination.
By Zoya Naaz Rehman
Gujarat, 1930. Salt protest events are taking the coastal areas of colonial India by storm, a snowball effect of a recent mass pilgrimage, led by Mahatma Gandhi, to the seaside town of Dandi. Here, Gandhi and his followers made their own salt, in resistance against the British Empire’s Salt Act of 1882; the law prohibited Indians from collecting and selling salt, forcing them to rely on heavily taxed imports instead.
The Salt March, in which Gandhi’s contingent travelled over 386 km to reach Dandi, was met with police privy to their plan, attempting to thwart the soon-to-be salt revolution by crushing deposits of the mineral into the ground. Undeterred, Gandhi reached down to fish a small lump of crystal out of the mud. Just like that, the law was broken. An Indian man had collected his own salt. Soon, thousands of supporters across the country followed his lead. Even women, who were discouraged from being a part of the March, manufactured contraband salt in their homes. This act of satyagraha — determined, but non-violent resistance — formed part of the chain of salt protest events around coastal areas of the country, culminating with the birth of an independent India in 1947.
Part of the protest’s power stemmed from the symbolism that salt, in many ways, is life. Without salt, there is no preservation, no flavour, and no sustenance. Salt continues to be essential in India, both in the national imagination and in terms of economic might. In the last 60 years, India has not only become self-sufficient in salt production but also exports a large surplus. India is now the third-largest maker of salt in the world after the United States and China, producing around 300 tonnes of the crystal per year. 76 percent of this salt is produced in Gujarat.
Just like in Gandhi's day, salt production in Gujarat remains deeply political. Much of India’s salt is produced by marginalized women, who have been falling through the cracks of the social protection system for generations. They have also been impacted by conservation policies that separate them from their ancestral land. Yet they continue to preserve and innovate upon their traditional harvesting practices.
Life in Gujarat’s salt flats
“He makes me dig salt wells, pull the mud from the well and toss it out,” young women in Agariya Agnani sing about their salt-farming husbands. This is one of the many pieces of folk music that illuminates the harsh lived experiences of the women from the Agariya community, an indigenous Indian people who have for centuries been producing salt in the Gujarati region of the Little Rann of Kutch (LRK).
LRK is an uninhabited and seemingly never-ending stretch of cracked earth. It is a desert for eight months of the year and flooded for the remaining four when the seawater from the Gulf of Kutch on the Arabian Sea turns the dry surface into wet marshes over briny water. At the beginning of the farming season in October, around 60,000 members of the Agariya community leave behind their homes in the towns surrounding the marshes and travel to the desert to undertake the backbreaking work of harvesting salt until June, living all the while in temporary shelters.
Their circumstances are precarious. Firstly, until 1952, the Agariyas were classified as a “Denotified Tribe” according to the Constitution of India, a category informed by a colonial-era law as a way to criminalize entire communities who resisted British rule. Although this label is no longer used, it birthed persistent social and administrative biases that still haunt the Agariyas and other indigenous groups to this day. Secondly, LRK — part of the ancestral homelands of the Agariyas and the area that they traditionally occupy during the salt farming season — is sometimes referred to as Survey Number Zero, because it hasn’t been surveyed since India became an independent nation in 1947. In other words, the government has sought to learn nothing about this essential community of food providers for nearly a century, and for that reason, has struggled to understand how many people depend on the salt harvest for their livelihoods.
The Agariyas have also fallen victim to independent India’s efforts to spur domestic industry. India’s Salt Commissioner notes that the Government of India has played a key role in the development of the country’s salt industry, having shed the need for small producers — who make up 88 percent of all salt makers — to obtain a license for their work back in 1948. As a result, the majority of Agariyas, salt workers have been unlicensed and unrecognized, a massive disadvantage that deprives them of subsidies, insurance, or compensation in the event of natural disasters.1
Finally, the Agariyas, like many other nomadic or semi-nomadic indigenous communities in India, have been evicted from the lands they generationally occupied, without being provided definite alternatives. This displacement has been ostensibly conducted in the name of biodiversity: The Indian government’s 1973 decision to declare a large part of LRK a sanctuary for wild donkeys stripped them of any legal rights to the desert, eventually unleashing a process of negotiation that has stretched on for decades. In November 2006, state forest officials sent notices to salt workers directing them to cease harvesting salt, deemed to be an illegal activity, and leave the sanctuary, or face up to three years of imprisonment and a fine of Rs 25,000 (approximately US$300). In a newspaper article at the time, a member of the Agariya community said that Agariyas and the wild donkeys had been living in harmony with each other for centuries, with the Agariyas’ respect for the donkeys being a key reason the species had survived at all. Despite the threat of eviction, the Agariyas continued to harvest salt, but their work was termed “illegal” under the assumption that it threatens the survival of the wild donkey population. The product of their food work is fundamental to our nourishment, but they are shunned as obscure interlopers in its production.
These policy decisions have compounded to render the Agariyas indentured servants in all but name. Before the founding of the LRK wildlife sanctuary, the publicly owned desert land was leased to private owners with whom the Agariyas would negotiate the terms of their salt production. Since 1997, when the settlement process related to the wildlife sanctuary began to unfold, leases have ceased to exist, but the salt farmers continue to rely on the informal credit system called dhiraan: the former lease-owners provide the Agariyas with an advance payment for the salt they will harvest. The payment, however, is a discordantly small compensation for their labour. They earn about 0.30 rupees (or three-hundredths of a cent) for a kilogram of salt that is later sold on the market for 20 rupees a kilogram. By the end of the season, many Agariyas have spent about half on just fuel for the water pumps they use for brine collection, and most of the remaining funds on repairs, labour, and basic supplies for survival in the desert. This means they habitually leave LRK with almost no profits and often accrue debt.
Agariya women are at the forefront of innovation
Agariya men often die young as a result of the serious physical and mental health risks brought on by salt processing, including skin conditions and blindness. They also face the dangers of operating diesel-run pumps, which spew noxious fumes and are known to combust. The nearby town of Kharaghoda is colloquially called the “village of widows”, because of the unnaturally high number of widowed Agariya women it houses. The men die, but their debts live on, and the women — often arriving in LRK with children in tow — work to fulfill them.2 Meanwhile, alongside the salt harvest, they do the work of raising and caring for their families in the desert. The Agariya women occupy the position of food provider within their own families, but the ripples of their work are felt far beyond their homes, with India and much of the world benefitting from it. They also play a crucial role in keeping a traditional method of salt production alive.
Salt produced in Gujarat is primarily processed and sold industrially — you will not find it labelled “Product of India” at an upmarket grocer — but the methods used to extract it are surprisingly artisanal. On their arrival in the desert, before they begin farming, the Agariyas dig a makeshift production unit in the ground that collects underground brine in a well, and concentrates it in salt pans. Eventually, the Agariyas will use a pata, or a crystallization pan, to precipitate perfectly shaped and sized salt crystals as the captured brine evaporates under the sun’s burning heat. These pans have hardened bases to prevent the liquid from sinking back into the soil, and are moulded manually through the ancient practice of paglee — being stepped on with bare feet, usually for over a month — often by Agariya women. In fact, nearly every step of the salt farming process is manual, with the exception of the mechanized extraction of the brine collected in the well with a water pump running on diesel or crude oil.
In other major salt-producing nations, the use of solar evaporation as a method is rapidly disappearing even though it is seen as superior in terms of its taste of origins, something akin to having merroir. But the Agariya women have doubled down on their efforts to protect the technique. In 2013, the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), an organization of low-income, self-employed women workers, tested a program to replace the typical fossil fuel-run pumps used by the Agariyas with solar energy-powered alternatives, based on the idea that solar-powered pumps would be less expensive, more efficient, and less polluting than their fossil fuel-powered counterparts. The scheme was eventually scaled up, with enormous benefits for both Agariya women and the climate. The Hindustan Times quoted Harinesh Pandya, managing trustee of NGO Agariya Heet-Rakshak Samiti, which works in the LRK and has about 6,000 Agariyas as its members:
There has been a drastic change in five years and the reason for this is solar energy. The quality of yield has improved, salt farmers can take multiple crops in a season with better byproduct recovery. Their requirement for working capital has come down drastically. Today, Agariya women are buying gold ornaments, renovating their houses in the villages, sending their children for higher studies to city areas and even inviting DJs for the wedding of their children.
Other headlines abound with claims of the solar panels’ unprecedented socio-economic success; Hilary Clinton even visited LRK earlier this year, attending SEWA’s 50th-anniversary celebration and using the opportunity to announce the creation of a Global Climate Resilience Fund to disburse US$50 million in the region to support women fighting climate change.
Progress risks being lost
But these newfound gains are being threatened, by both a large-scale infrastructure project potentially coming to LRK and further administrative rulings related to conservation. The Indian government is currently evaluating a 2019 proposal by Jaysukh Patel, an Indian business magnate, to build a freshwater lake in the area called Rann Sarovar. The lake would be built by damming the creek that allows LRK to flood with seawater, creating a source of water that could be used year-round. In theory, the project has already been approved by the central government’s water agency; the Gujarat government is meant to have formed a committee to study the project’s social and environmental feasibility. When asked about the livelihood of the Agariyas, Patel suggested they be given 10 acres of agricultural land where they can be “rehabilitated”, continuing:
Inland salt making is a dying profession. The Agariyas are the poorest people in Gujarat. I have proposed that they be employed to run the water-sports and boats when the Rann Sarovar comes up.
Patel has since been arrested in connection with the mishandling of a renovation project that led to the collapse of a bridge in Gujarat, killing 135 people; it’s not clear where the Rann Sarovar project currently stands.3 Meanwhile, in February 2023, the state’s forest department again notified the Agariyas that their salt-making on protected land was an illegal activity. It claimed that all Agariyas whose land rights are not recognized by an official survey would be evicted; the government had a record of just 600 Agariyas in the region, meaning the remaining 6,000-7,000 families would be severed from their livelihoods. This notification was reportedly followed by forest department officials ransacking areas of salt production, breaking over 50 of the very solar panels that had been introduced to support and modernize the Agariyas’ work, ironically subsidized in part by the Gujarat government.
This situation reveals the intricate links between land rights, conservation, and gender. Communities that face discrimination, like the Agariyas, are often disproportionately dependent on natural resources and services that ecosystems provide for free, like salt. If displaced from their land, they lose access to these services and grow even more vulnerable. Women, who generally possess less capital, land, and access to resources than men, are even more dependent on the ecosystem resources; a 2006 report by the Government of India’s salt commissioner found that women salt workers on average earned less than male salt workers, and in Gujarat, only 14% of women salt workers were literate, versus 28% of men. In essence, their ability to withstand shocks is poorer, and their opportunities to adapt to new forms of employment are slimmer. If Agariya women were to be displaced from the land they’ve farmed for centuries, in the name of either infrastructure or fortress conservation — two areas where designing gender-sensitive policies is essential but in this case, has been overlooked — few options would be available to them.
As recently as September 2023, the Gujarat government reneged on its announcement to evict the community from LRK and decided to permit all salt workers holding leases up to 10 acres to continue salt production in the area. At the start of this October’s farming season, Agariya women entered LRK with something new in their luggage: identity cards issued by the Gujarat forest department, confirming that they belong to the community of salt workers. After decades of restriction, the department has officially acknowledged the role of the Agariyas in wildlife conservation, including wild donkeys. It also recognized that salt production is not an illegal form of mining, but a “traditional occupation practiced for centuries” — granting the Agariyas legitimate access to financial markets. A decision on their land rights, however, has yet to be taken. Without formalizing the Agariyas’ land rights, the cycle of insecurity risks continuing, particularly as the government’s recognition of the Agariyas’ status has come with a host of new conditions — some very challenging to meet — on how the community can harvest the salt. Negotiations appear to be ongoing.
Perhaps, if given an out, some Agariya women may choose different lives and have different dreams for themselves and their children, a choice worthy of being respected. Traditional practices should not be synonymous with oppression, because a sustainable food system can’t be built on the foundation of exploitation. However, neither should women be forced out of ancestral practices that they have worked hard to innovate. Solar pumps have given them the opportunity to take part in this microcosm of the food system with dignity, this progress remains precarious; any form of labour is thought to be able to take salt’s stead. Yet, they persevere. Once again, salt is pivotal in the fight for the freedom to choose how to live in India, but it is not Gandhi who is marching. This time, the rebellion is led by resourceful and resilient Agariya women, who for centuries have been the leaders of a traditional cultural practice. Perhaps, like salt on our food, we wouldn’t fully appreciate the essentiality of the Agariya women unless they were gone.
Zoya Naaz Rehman (she/her) is a student and food scholar whose worldview is informed by her feminist, Muslim, and Indian identities. For her thoughts on food, public health, and everything in between, follow her on Instagram @kohl.lined.perspectives.
This is a threat now more than ever: unpredictable rainfall prompted by climate change and floods from the drainage of the nearby Narmada River quite literally wash away any harvest, and increasingly frequent dust storms sully the salt, lowering its price.
In what seems like an ugly parallel of the Indian patriarchal tendency to label the woman in a childless marriage as “barren”, cultural convention holds that Agariya women are to be blamed when salt wells reveal themselves to be empty.