A small community of salt farmers in the Little Rann of Kutch has brought in a solar revolution by switching from their traditional diesel-powered pumps to solar-powered pumps to extract brine. The silent shift is not only reducing carbon emissions, but also boosting earnings of the Agariya community.
The saucer-shaped Little Rann of Kutch, spread across 5,000 sq km, is a wildlife sanctuary that conserves the endemic wild ass. During monsoon, the Little Rann of Kutch becomes a brackish lake when water from 11 rivers of Saurashtra, North Gujarat and Rajasthan drain the region along with tidal waters from the Arabian Sea.
For eight months, the region remains a desert. It is during this period that Agariyas migrate from 106 villages in the surrounding five districts to the Little Rann of Kutch. From October to June, this community works under a fierce sun to produce 30 percent of India’s inland salt or about 0.35 million metric tonnes.
How is salt produced?
The Agariyas extract brine from underground reserves to produce salt. The pumped-out brine is spread across large pans in the fields to evaporate and convert into crystal salt. Except for the pump that lifts the brine, the entire process is manual.
The Agariyas brave 40 degrees Celsius temperature during the day and nearly 4 degrees during the desert night. As a result of the relentless work, salt farmers suffer from severe eye problems owing to intense reflections off the shiny surface, skin lesions and tuberculosis, according to a report by the National Institute of Occupational Health in Ahmedabad.
A salt worker hardly survives beyond 60 years, the report said.
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Shift to solar pumps
Earlier, salt farmers used light diesel oil pumps to lift the sub-soil brine. The pumps, which release noxious fumes and make a grinding noise throughout the day, are placed besides their temporary huts. Around 2008, non-profit organisations working with the Agariyas introduced solar pumps to suit the region’s requirement.
According to a report by Down To Earth, these non-profits claim that now 80 percent of the 7,000 Agariya families in the region use at least one solar pump for producing salt.
“We needed 13 drums of oil before we got solar pumps in 2016. Each drum of 200 litres oil cost us Rs 10,000 back then. Now, we only need seven drums to run the pump for a few hours in the night. The sun is enough during the day,” 60-year-old Tejal Makwana told Down to Earth.
Makwana, who comes from Surendranagar district, has seen her grandfather pump brine using bullocks.
Diesel pumps were hazardous as they would often heat up and burst. These pumps needed to be monitored all the time, leading to parents spending less time with their children. Thanks to solar pumps, now most families have spare time to attend to their families or take up other work.
Depending on the power, a solar pump costs between Rs 2.4 lakh and Rs 3.5 lakh. For the marginalised Agariyas, this is a substantially big amount. As the Agariyas do not own land in the area, they are not eligible for bank loans. To encourage these salt farmers to use solar pumps, non-profits devised various financing schemes.
The solar revolution got an impetus when the Gujarat industries department doled out an 80 percent subsidy scheme for solar pumps in 2017. The department aimed to roll out 5,000 solar pumps in five years. To get the subsidy, the Agariyas had to buy a solar pump first and then apply for the subsidy. The District Industries Commissioner’s office physically verified the pump and then approved the subsidy. The scheme helped the renewable energy industry in the region and has so far installed around 3,000 pumps, Down to Earth reported.
Vikas Centre for Development and Self Employed Women's Association (SEWA) has also helped the Agariyas get loans from funding agencies and banks. SEWA has also partnered with Bank of Baroda and NABARD to give financial assistance to Agariyas.
(Edited by : Shoma Bhattacharjee)