The first image that comes in mind when someone, especially from India, hears the words Rann of Kutch is an endless white landscape that shines under the moon light. But it is more than just a picturesque white landscape. The Rann of Kutch has the ability to transform from a blinding white expanse of salt during the winters into a swampy, muddy land during the summers, making the location a natural wonder.
But this geographical wonder also provides India and the world with something much more important. It provides the most basic ingredient for any dish, a cheap commodity present on every household’s kitchen shelf, the humble and colorless Salt.
Approximately 70% of the country’s salt production units come from Gujrat, specifically from the Little Rann of Kutch (LRK). The inhabitants of this salt production hub are known as Agarias, a group of people who have been responsible for salt production in this area for ages. Pythagoras may have stated that “salt in born of the purest parents: the sun and the sea” but in India, the Agaria people are a major component of salt production. The Wounded Souls of the Rann , a film by Dinesh Lakhanpal, showcases the laborious but fascinating process of salt production carried out by the Agarias during the winter harvesting cycle.
We cannot imagine our food without salt. And yet we don’t know anything about the people who make this vital ingredient. And we certainly don’t give much thought to the hardships these people might face while producing salt for us. This film remedies that by showing us the numerous problems and challenges faced by the Agarias associated with salt production.
The Agarias work in the LRK for 7-8 months while battling against the harsh weather conditions of the area. Without permanent residences, the Agarias can only live in shacks beside the salt fields. And twice a year, they have to move their makeshift dwellings because of the extreme weather. They start work early in the morning to avoid the rising temperature which can soar to above 40° Celsius even in December.
On top of the unforgiving weather, the marshy terrain adds another element of difficulty. Since vehicles cannot be used during the post-monsoon season, the Agarias have to carry and move all their equipment manually. It’s a herculean task and the Agaria people struggle to keep their mind, body and soul together especially when every aspect of their job and life in the area is a health hazard.
The unforgiving desert affects salt workers in numerous ways.
Under the bright sun, the bright glare of the white landscape leads to many salt workers getting chronic eye problems. The lack of nutritious food like fruits, vegetables, and milk leaves the entire community riddled with deficiencies.
The worst issue of all is the scarcity of water.
Water has to be rationed for drinking, cooking and daily ablutions. Without basic sanitation facilities, women have a tough time maintaining their menstrual hygiene. Even trying to dig wells for more water is dangerous, and many young lives have been lost when they came into contact with toxic gases.
Unfortunately, it’s not just these problems that make life difficult for the Agarias.
Though the migrating community of the Agarias have been making salt for the last six centuries, it’s wrong to think that all of them choose to become a salt worker. They are still salt workers because they were born into families that were salt workers, and they didn’t have a chance to choose anything different.
And as Dinesh shows us in this film, being a salt worker in LRK means working in horrifying sub human conditions and earning a mere pittance for providing us with essential salt. Because the region’s salt manufacturing sector still falls under the unorganized sector, there is minimal government intervention.
Without basic facilities such as clean drinking water, insurance options, lucrative market prices, trade unions, and financial aid, it’s not surprising that the Agarias get exploited and end up in a vicious cycle of debt that they can never repay no matter how much or how hard they work.
Thankfully, a few NGOs and private bodies are slowly bringing life changing initiatives such as solar panels, water canals, and setting up primary schools, with the hope of providing a better future for the Agarias.
Instead of dumping all these facts on us, Dinesh has captured the year long life of the Agaria community and weaves it into compelling narrative with an engaging voiceover that melds well with evocative visuals and local folksongs. The perfect balance of these combined cinematographic elements leaves viewers unable to ignore the heart wrenching story of the oftentimes neglected Agaria.
Watching ‘Wounded Souls of the Rann’ makes us realize that every single thing, even something as small as the salt shaker on our dining tables, comes at a huge price that someone else has to pay. This realization is the first step towards change. This change will lead to more people reaching out to help those in need. And that is something that the world can use a lot more of.
With a Post Graduate in Marketing Management, and 14 years of corporate experience in General Insurance domain, Antara is based out of Delhi and shuttles across India for her work commitments. In order to pursue her higher education, she left home at the tender age of 16 and has stayed in different cities of India, allowing her to meet people from different backgrounds. As a voracious reader, traveller, and orator, Antara has always found the art of writing extremely therapeutic as it helps her channel her inner energy about various social issues.