The short 5 days I spent in Kutch last month has left a myriad of images in my mind – of the flat, uncluttered country side, the great, impressive architectural marvels (Rani-ki-vav, Aina Mahal at Bhuj, Sun temple of Modhera) and wonderful, impressive crafts people and their art. But the most recurring image is that of the little girl, holding rock salt in her hand and flashing the most glorious smile for the camera.
This is Meena, all of 7 years old, who lives with her parents in the flat lands of the little Rann. And when I say flat, by jove is it flat!! I have never seen anything like it and am unlikely to – it is a vast extant of cracked brown mudflats, stretching as far as the eye can see. Under a searing white sun, where temperatures rise into the 50s and drops to sub-zero in winter nights, the bare horizon is without a spot of green, the azure sky devoid of a single cloud. And in the midst of it all, we see these islands of salt pans and stop to look.
Meena is spontaneous, skipping along to pick up the handful of salt to show us. The mother informs us that they live right there, for 7-8 months of the year, retreating to the village only for the monsoon season. She has two older sons as well, but they stay back in the village and go to school. Of course, that is denied to Meena as she is now too young and probably in the future as well, since a girl cannot be left alone in the village. The family are paid Rs 7000/ per month by the contractor and provided with a motorbike since everything including water has to fetched from a long way away.
It was only on my return from Kutch that I read about the salt panning. So, it would seem Meena and her family belong to the Agariya community who have been engaged in this livelihood for centuries. In recent times, there have been issues related to displacement, due to the Government’s policies and the establishment of the Wild Ass Sanctuary. Most members of this schedule tribe do not have any alternative livelihood skills and are also threatened by the changes in climate. The poor rainfall in the last few years has adversely affected their activity. Middle men and contractors exploit have entered are entrenched reducing the Agariyas to a state of ‘unofficial’ bondage!!
But just the day to day existence in this arid, flat treeless place is unimaginable. As to Meena, her future is like that of so many other young girls around the country, un-letterd and ignorant to what others would take for granted. And maybe it is this ignorance, that keeps her smiling. She is the same age as my grand-daughter and as I gave her money to buy chocolates, I wondered when she will get near a shop. For me, Meena’s smile is the lasting image of Kutch.
PS I meant to post this on 8th March – but missed that opportunity