According to the Surendranagar collectorate handout itself, it was the first time since Independence that a voter awareness campaign was being held in Kharaghoda, part of the Little Rann of Kutch. The region is so much out of focus, in fact, that state revenue department officials say the land has no survey number in its records and is hence known simply as “survey number zero”.
On Tuesday, resident additional collector C G Pandya was cautioning voters against filing fake complaints about EVMs or VVPAT machines. “If anyone has cast his vote as per the rules but the VVPAT shows a different name — if you have such doubts, you can complain to the presiding officer. But the presiding officer will verify if the complaint is fake or real,” Pandya told voters, mostly of agariya (salt-pan worker) families. “The presiding officer will enter the voting area with the polling agent and polling officer, and in their presence will ask you to cast a trial vote,” Pandya said. “In the trial vote, if your complaint proves fake, a police complaint will be filed against you. But if your complaint is correct, the higher authorities will be informed.”
Excited to be part of the campaign, agariya couple Savitaben, 50, and Dhanabhai Ataniya, 57, had motorcycled 25 km from the salt pans. “I would have come even if I had to travel a longer distance. It is the first ever voter awareness campaign held for us,” she said.
Kharaghoda, part of the unsurveyed flat terrain in Little Rann of Kutch, has a 600-year-old legacy of salt-pan workers. LRK covers four districts, with eight assembly and four Lok Sabha constituencies — Kutch, Patan, Surendranagar and Rajkot.
Across LRK, agariyas live in 175 villages, a population of 15,000 families with 70,000 members. These include 35,600 agariyas in Surendranagar — half of those in LRK and a third of the 1.10 lakh across Gujarat.
For eight months a year, agariyas in LRK migrate from their villages to salt farms. On polling day, many will be 50-60 km from home. Transportation has always been an issue and Tuesday’s rare event allowed voters to demand facilities. “With seven family members as voters and only one motorcycle, we will have to make three rounds of 30 to 35 km either way. It is also difficult to make one round in 10-15 days to Patdi town for our daily needs,” said Kalubhai Thakore, 52.
“When the government can provide a health van and a water tank once a week or once in 10 days, why not a bus once in five years?” said Dilabhai Kansagara, 43.
Pandya did not commit transportation facilities on December 9, citing the model code. “The situation of Panchmahal [where the government will provide transportation to migrant labourers] and LRK is different,” Pandya told The Indian Express. “The number of voters and the locations in Panchmahal are fixed, while you would need a guide even to reach inside LRK due to its geographic location and layout. When, at times, even the agariyas are not able to find their way and get stuck in barren marshy land, it is not feasible to provide a bus.”
“Other instances are being cited but we are seeking clarity whether we can do it institutionally or not from the CEO’s office, which we expect to receive soon,” district collector Udit Agrawal told The Indian Express. “Although it will not be tough to do it, we cannot influence their voting…” Election officer and subdivisional magistrate (Patdi) Sunil Vasava said, “We are exploring solutions and waiting for orders from district headquarters.”
From 10 villages in Dasada taluka of Surendranagar, the turnout was 63% in 2012.
Harinesh Pandya, founder of Agariya Heet Rakshak Manch fighting for agariyas’ causes, sees politics in lack of access to transport facilities. “The ruling party is aware that this belt of agariyas is pro-Congress,” Harinesh Pandya said.
In March 2014, Rahul Gandhi had visited Kharaghoda to interact with agariyas. The BJP won all eight seats in this belt in 2012.
The Little Rann of Kutch accounts for 37% of the total salt production in Gujarat, which in turn accounts for 73% of the country’s production. Agariyas work in temperatures that reach 53°C to 54°C as they cultivate salt crystals for eight months every year, starting after Diwali.
The state government has recently announced a scheme for subsidised solar water pumps for the community, who are currently using diesel-run submersible pumps.
The government has also launched schemes through which agariyas get items such as gumboots, gloves, goggles and cap free. “After the first ever survey was done in 2009, the first kits were distributed in 2012 by the labour department. Along with the kit, they also get a bicycle and a 1,000-litre water tank. The second round of distribution will begin after the elections,” said Bharatbhai Somera, coordinator at AHRM.
Babubhai Rathod, 29, of Odu village has been cultivating salt in Jhinjhuvada for six years. He had come to get his agariya identity card made. “Since I did not have an ID card, I was not eligible for the kit given by the government. I spent Rs 900 on these rubber gumboots and gloves,” said Rathod, who has three children, the eldest a two-year-old daughter.