Just 10 kilometres from the Arabian Sea, Surajbari Creek is the land of the Agariyas, who have lived here for centuries, producing just the one harvest. It is something everyone wants—salt . From October to June they labour without a halt, growing salt in large, square pans—around 75 per cent of India’s total salt produced. It is around 235 km from Ahmedabad and 150 km from Bhuj, the district headquarters of Kutch, at the edge of the Little Rann of Kutch.

In the monsoon months, the Rann of Kutch is an unending sheet of shining sea water. As it starts receding in October, the Agariyas move in and begin their Sisyphean task. They dig wells to pump out the briny groundwater and fill the square-shaped fields and rely on natural evaporation to leave the white crystals. In winter, the harvest begins in the salt fields, now silvery white with salt. Braving a relentless 40 degrees during daytime which often dips to 4 degrees in the night, the Agariyas live for four to five months in shacks beside their salt flats with their families and children who, instead of going to school, start working in the pans from the age of 10.

The production averages 12-15 tonnes every 15 days from each salt pan, which is sent to salt companies and chemical factories across the country. The Agariyas earn a paltry  ₹60 per tonne, whereas the market price of industrial salt is ₹4000 per tonne and domestic salt fetches ₹5500.

The low income level and lack of education facilities in the barren Rann offer few chances for the children to escape the cycle of poverty and poor health. The salt workers remain generationally indebted to the merchants.

The price of working for years in these harsh conditions is high—skin lesions, severe eye problems due to intense reflection off the white surfaces and tuberculosis. A salt worker of Kutch seldom lives beyond 60. When they die, their abnormally thin legs, stiff with years of exposure to highly saturated salt, do not burn in the funeral pyre. Their legs are collected by relatives and buried separately in a small grave with salt so that they can decompose naturally.

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Work starts in early October, when farmers begin the embankment process in the still-submerged flats. Photo: Ajay Dhamecha
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It is a herculean task ferrying equipment across the marsh the road is too soft for vehicles. Workers carry a generator on a corrugated metal sheet. Photo: Ajay Dhamecha

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Workers prefer to start early as day temperatures could soar to 40 degrees even in December.  Photo: Sugato Mukherjee.
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The salt pans were converted to a sanctuary for the wild ass and farmers served eviction notices in 2006. The legal limbo continues and the Agariyas face an uncertain future. Photo: Sugato Mukherjee.

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An Agariya family at work in Surajbari Creek. Photo: Sugato Mukherjee.
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Davalram, 64, levelling the pan his family has worked for generations. Most of his friends who started with him half a century ago, are dead. Photo: Sugato Mukherjee.

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In summer, the temperature is unbearable and the farmers have to work barefoot, exposing their legs to saturated salt. The legs become abnormally thin, do not burn on the funeral pyre, and have to be buried separately. Photo: Sugato Mukherjee.
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An Agariya farmer shows the start-of-season salt crystals. Photo: Sugato Mukherjee.

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Chhotu, 15, brings water to his family. The Rann is short of drinking water and he has to walk 6 km to get fresh water. Photo: Sugato Mukherjee.

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An Agariya woman sorts grain beside her hut. In the peak harvest season, Agariyas set up in shacks near the salt fields. Photo: Sugato Mukherjee.
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Agariya women and children in a salt factory. The payout for packing 1000 packets of salt is just `80. Photo :Sugato Mukherjee.
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Another day begins in the salt plains, which produce about 75 per cent of India’s salt. Photo: Sugato Mukherjee.