As a part of election campaign to woo voters below middle class and above the poverty line, Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi met and interacted with salt pan workers, locally known as agariyas, here in Kharaghoda, bordering the Little Rann of Kutch, in Surendranagar district Tuesday evening. Gandhi listened to their problems and said, “I have understood your problems and I will try my best to address those issues. I am not saying that I will change your life in the next ten days, but I will make attempts.”
According to sources, this interaction was part of finding “new class” of 70 crore people by Rahul’s core team members. One of the members, G Mohan Gopal, believed to be part of think tank in Rahul’s team, was present at the spot. He said that he had come for research work with regard to 70 crore people that Rahul spoke about in Tonk, Rajasthan, on Monday. Gopal is also the director of Rajiv Gandhi Institute for contemporary Studies, New Delhi.
Rahul interacted with about hundred workers, including women, who waited for him for hours in the scorching heat surrounded by the mounds of salt. During the 45-minute-long interaction, Rahul didn’t make any political comment, but told the gathering about how he introduced several rights to people such as education, food, information and land, among others.
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“We want saline water canal along with sweet water canal in the Rann. We spend eight months in the Rann cultivating salt, but there is no source of water. Government supply is too less. The seasonal schools set up by the government is running only on papers,” one of the agariyas told Rahul.
The salt pan workers complained about exploitation at the hands of a private salt manufacturing company and forest officers.
They said that in the absence of right to land, they were being harassed by the company and foresters. “Where should we go now? Our ancestors have worked and died in this Rann. Even after staying here for hundreds of years, we don’t have any right over it,” one of the workers complained.
According to estimates, out of 70 per cent of salt produced in Gujarat, 60 per cent comes from the Little Rann of Kutch bordering dozens of village where locals are primarily involved in salt-making. The agariyas told Gandhi that the salt- making firm’s lease agreement of 99 years expired in 2012, but vast lands still belong to the company.
“No one listens to us against the company. I was fired by the company for raising my voice against our exploitation,” claimed Chandubhai Rathod, an ex- serviceman. Demanding subsidy on solar energy and diesel, workers pleaded before Rahul to give them ownership of the land which they have been cultivating for years, just like tribals. They also sought help in getting identity cards from the government so that they could get loans, among others.
During the interaction, the salt pan workers also raised the issue of lower price of their salt. They said that they get about Rs 20 for per 100 kg of salt. However, in the open market, the companies sell them for more than Rs 10 for one kg salt. Rahul also went to the Little Rann of Kutch to see how salt is cultivated.