One day in early June, Awesh Bhai received a Whatsapp message from the Gujarat State Disaster Management Authority warning him that Cyclone Biparjoy would make landfall in Gujarat in the next five days.

Awesh Bhai lives in the town of Maliya in Morbi district, just under 50 km from the coast – close enough that it would feel the impact of the cyclone.

He set to work to limit the damage he was anticipating. Among the measures he planned was to unscrew solar panels that powered a pump that he had bought with the help of a subsidy provided by the Gujarat government. The motor helped him pump saline water, which flowed underground and from nearby streams that connected to the sea, into sections of flat land, known as salt pans. Here the water would gradually evaporate to leave behind salt, his main source of livelihood.

“But the moment I shared the news of the coming cyclone with my labourers, they all packed up their temporary huts and rushed away from the salt farms for safety,” Awesh Bhai said. “We could not take off the panels in time.”

In mid-June, the cyclone hit Maliya. Awesh Bhai lost eight of his 16 solar panels. The cyclone also carried dust that mixed with about 500 tonnes of salt he had already harvested, making it unfit to sell. “Over the 10 acres that we harvest salt, we faced losses of about Rs 4 lakh to Rs 5 lakh last year,” he said.

Salt pans in Maliya. In June last year, Cyclone Biparjoy hit Gujarat, and caused extensive losses in the Little Rann to both individual salt-farmers, or Agariyas, as well as larger companies. Photo: Vaishnavi Rathore

Awesh Bhai is an Agariya, a term that refers to a group of small-scale, traditional salt-makers in Gujarat who hail from four different caste and religious groups. They carry out the work under a Central government notification of 1948 that exempts any individual who makes salt on less than 10 acres of land from obtaining a lease.

An estimated 45,000 Agariyas make salt in Gujarat’s Little Rann of Kutch, a triangular desert shared between five districts – Morbi, Kutch, Surendranagar, Patan, and Banaskantha. Gujarat is India’s highest salt-producing state, and accounts for 85% of the country’s total production – in 2022, the state produced 228 lakh tonnes. The produced salt is processed for human consumption, but also as raw material for other products, like caustic soda, fertilisers, and paints. Of the total salt produced in Gujarat, 31% comes from Agariyas in the Little Rann of Kutch.

However, in the last few years, the production of salt has seen a decline across all salt-producing states. In Gujarat, it fell by 4% in just six years between 2016 and 2022, an analysis of data presented in response to a Rajya Sabha question showed.

“The fall in Gujarat is majorly because of two causes,” said Bharat Raval, president of the Indian Salt Manufacturing Association, or ISMA. “Increasing cyclones on the coast between April and May, and extended monsoons.”

Mounds of salt awaiting transportation. Gujarat is India’s highest salt-producing states, and accounts for 85% of the country’s production. Of this, 31% comes from Agariyas in the Little Rann. Photo: Vaishnavi Rathore

Indeed, the last three decades have seen significant changes in Gujarat’s climate. An analysis of meteorological data from 1980 to 2020 found a 52% increase in the frequency of cyclonic storms in the Arabian sea, an 80% increase in their duration, and an increase of about 40% in their intensity in the post-monsoon period.

Residents of the region also noted that the Little Rann had been seeing “kam mausam baarish”, their term for unseasonal rains, and an overall increase in the amount of rain in the region. While data specific to the Little Rann is not available, meteorologists have documented changes in climate in Kutch district, where a part of the Little Rann falls: over a span of 30 years between 1983 and 2013, the average rainfall in the district during the monsoon months from June to September almost doubled from 378 mm to 674 mm.

These changes in climate have spelled disaster for the salt-making industry, which benefited earlier from the limited rain in the desert and the sharp sunlight it received through the year. The changes are shortening the salt production season, negatively affecting the quality of salt, delaying production, and causing losses in crores for large companies.

“Salt is one of the cheapest and most essential commodities,” Raval said. “Right now, the government is not giving attention to the problem. When they finally do that, it will be very late. The industry will not be able to recover overnight.”

The changes in climate are also disrupting the livelihoods of small-scale salt miners. “Ours is a profession that is almost completely dependent on the weather,” said Awesh Bhai. “Lekin ab mausam palti kha raha hai,” he said – but now the weather is turning over.

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The little Rann of Kutch spans approximately 5,000 square km. The landscape changes dramatically through the year. During the monsoon, seasonal rivers drain into the desert, while seawater flows directly over land closer to the coast. This effectively converts the desert into a wetland, and renders it inaccessible.

In the monsoons, seawater flows directly onto parts of the Little Rann, while rivers also drain into the desert. During these months, the desert is effectively a wetland, inaccessible to Agariyas. Photo: Vaishnavi Rathore

Each September, the sea retreats and the seasonal rivers dry up, leaving a vast expanse of flat land. This marks the start of the period of salt-manufacturing, which lasts up till March and April the following year.

There are broadly two kinds of manufacturers. Closer to the coast, and with easy access to highways, are companies that make salt across thousands of acres of land. These companies typically make karkatch, a powdery variety of salt that can be produced every two months. Some Agariyas also work close to the coast, and make karkatch.

Most Agariyas, however, work further inland, and manufacture vadagara, a salt variety that is made up of large crystals that take eight months to harvest.

At the start of the salt-making months, the Agariyas hire tractors, load them up with rations and their belongings. They then drive from towns and villages on the periphery of the desert through marshy land to reach the locations where they set up salt farms.

By the time they put up temporary huts made with bamboo and tarpaulin, the marshy land dries up completely – it is typically then available to them for the next eight months to make salt.

In early January, when Scroll visited parts of the Little Rann in Surendranagar and Morbi districts, solar-powered motors pumped out saline groundwater into large, shallow pits about a foot deep. From there, water flowed out through slightly sloping channels that Agariyas dig from scratch each year, to four other successive pits. In this process, water evaporates, increasing the salinity of the remaining water. By March and April, water evaporates almost completely from the final pit, leaving crystals of salt that the Agariyas collect.

Fluctuating and extreme climate patterns affect this production process in multiple, interlinked ways.

As in Awesh Bhai’s case, perhaps the most dramatic and visible damage happens as a result of cyclones.

Older generations of Agariyas noted that the occurrence of cyclones has increased in recent years. Not only do strong cyclones cause immediate damage to solar panels, the temporary huts and quality of salt, they also shorten the salt season.

“Usually, the salt season winds up at the end of June,” said ISMA’s Raval. He added that most cyclones in recent years had made landfall in May, which effectively ends the season a month or two earlier. “Ending two months earlier means a loss of about 60 lakh tonnes of salt,” Raval said.

Karim Juma, a 52-year-old Agariya, pointed out that in Maliya, cyclones are accompanied by strong tidal waves – these waves carry saline water as far inland as Maliya through streams. These streams sometimes overflow, submerging the access roads to the salt pans; water can then take weeks to withdraw. “During this time, the water does not allow us to enter the desert area even with our cars,” he said. “So, in case some of our harvested salt is saleable, we are not able to get transportation to sell it to factories.”

Karim Juma explained that cyclones are accompanied by tidal waves that carry saline water far inland through streams. These streams can overflow and block access to salt that is ready for harvest. Photo: Vaishnavi Rathore

Cyclones also affect larger companies that operate in the region, such as Dev Salt, in Morbi district. The company makes 5 lakh tonnes of the multi-crop kurkatch every year by drawing seawater into salt pans across 7,000 acres and concentrating it through a mechanised version of the process that Agariyas use.

Last year, the company suffered major losses as a result of Cyclone Biparjoy. The cyclone and accompanying high tides flooded the desert where the company operates. The company lost 50% of its salt production, according to Vivek Dhruna, an industrial relations and liaison officer of Dev Salt.

Salt manufacturers in Morbi build mud bundhs around five feet high to prevent high-tide seawater from mixing with the salt pans through the year.

But Dhruna noted that often these bundhs cannot bear the impact of intense cyclones.

“The water then seeps into the mud bundhs, making them weaker,” he said. When this happens, loosened mud and other impurities from the bundh also mix with the saline water, he explained, adding, “This hampers the quality of salt.”

He noted that the salt closer to the walls would have higher amounts of these impurities, and that therefore, “In such cases, we harvest salt only beyond 25 feet from the wall of the bundhs.”

Salt-makers then have to hire machines and labour to strengthen the bundhs again. “So, the cost of production for the salt that year increases,” Dhruna said.

Meteorological data support Agariyas’ anecdotal accounts of excess and unseasonal rain in the region. Indian Meteorological Department data from weather stations in three cities in Kutch – Kandla, Mundra and Naliya – show an increase in “rainy days” over the past 30 years. Specifically, between the decades of 1990–2000 and 2011–2020, the number of rainy days that Kandla saw increased from an average of 12 to 20. Between the same periods, Mundra saw an increase from 14.6 to 20, and Naliya, from 9.8 to 14.3.

In times of excess rain, dams in the region, such as the Narmada and Machhu dams, often fill beyond capacity – authorities then release excess water, which flows through canals, some of which are close to salt pans.

Salt farmers noted that if this freshwater, or “meetha pani”, drains into the desert, it can mix with the saline brine being evaporated in Agariyas’ pits. “This dilutes the degree of salinity in the water, and we have to restart the salt-making process all over again,” said Deelabhai Khambalia, a salt-maker who lives a few kilometres away from Savadia, and whose hut in the desert is situated on the edge of a small lake made of excess water drained out from a canal nearby.

Khambalia added, “We have to manually build bundhs to prevent the sweet water from entering into our salt pans.”

The bundhs that Agariyas build are embankments made of mud, around two feet high. Building them is a time-consuming activity. Khambalia’s wife Sharda Ben explained that in 2023, “When we should have been doing salt work, we were doing mud work.”

Agariyas build mud bundhs to prevent freshwater from entering their salt pans and diluting the saline water. But this work is time-consuming and reduces the time available for farming. Photo: Vaishnavi Rathore

Apart from the last year, she recounted that the administration also released more than the usual amount of water through the canal in 2015 and 2017.

The process of making salt is also disrupted by the late withdrawal of the monsoon and unseasonal rains.

Anif Mohammad, a 41-year-old Agariya who makes salt around 10 km from Dev Salt, noted that he typically began his work around the festival of Janmashatmi, which usually falls in August. “Now, the rains are not sticking to their time,” he said. Now, he often starts work after Diwali, which usually falls in October or November.

“This year, we began making the salt pans on November 25, after the water from Machhu had finally dried up,” said Mohammad. “Then by November 27, it rained, which stalled our work once more.”

Unseasonal rain mixes with saline water in the pits, diluting its salinity, delaying the process by which salt crystals are formed. In some instances, when rains occur after salt crystals begin to form, “it melts the crystals away, destroying that crop”, said Karai Ben, who is in her late thirties. “Last year in March, first heavy wind came and then rain,” she said, adding that this damaged 900 tonnes of her salt.

The process of making salt is disrupted by the late withdrawal of the monsoon and unseasonal rains. Karai Ben noted that last year, unseasonal rain destroyed 900 tonnes of salt that she was manufacturing. Photo: Vaishnavi Rathore

Last year, 60-year-old Dev Bhai Savadia was able to travel the 30 km from his village Patdi to the desert only in October, delaying his salt-making process by a month. “The monsoon ended late, and the desert was still full of water so we could not enter,” he said. Typically, monsoon showers lasted in Gujarat from July to August. But in the last few years, rains have extended till September and even October.

A delay by a month meant that Savadia would probably stay a month longer to make up for the lost time for salt production. But this extended time period would coincide with the arrival of cyclones. “Staying longer in summer months means that we will be risking dust storms and cyclones, which mixes dust with the salt that is ready at the time,” he said.

Last year, a late end to the monsoon delayed the start of Dev Bhai Savadia’s salt-making process. As a result, the process is likely to spill into the months when the region sees cyclonic storms. Photo: Vaishnavi Rathore

Rains hamper salt production in other ways also. “The clouds that accompany unseasonal rains lower the evaporation rate,” said Dev Salt’s Dhruna. This extends the time needed to create one crop of salt. “With unfavourable weather, one crop of salt can take an additional month and a half to harvest,” he said.

Savadia noted that nowadays, “it rains at least three-four times after we come to the desert, which did not happen earlier”. Last year, after unseasonal rain battered his 10 acres of salt pans, Savadia lost 500 tonnes of about 1,300 tonnes of salt he had manufactured. This cost him around Rs 1 lakh from his annual earnings. “I get worried now when I see dark clouds in the sky,” Savadia said.

Salt-makers told Scroll that although they faced significant losses as a result of cyclones and excess and unseasonal rain, they had so far not seen significant support from the administration. Both small-scale Agariyas as well as large companies and traders said that they had not received compensation for losses they had suffered.

Bharat Somera, a coordinator at Surendranagar with Agariya Heetrakshak Manch, a collective of traditional salt-makers in Gujarat, noted that out of around 3,500 families who suffered losses in 2021 as a result of Cyclone Tauktae, only 75 received compensation. “This compensation was given only to those whose salt had crystallised and had been harvested before getting damaged because of the storm,” Somera said.

Pankti Jog, programme person with the Manch, explained that even those who did receive compensation got only Rs 2,500 for each of their salt pans, each of which is roughly 150 feet wide and 500 feet long. This amount “is a very, very low value for the damage suffered”, she said.

Somera added that apart from such payments granted in response to specific problems, “There were no clear guidelines of who should get compensation.”

Scroll emailed the district administration to ask about why many Agariyas had not received compensation. By the time this article was published, there had been no reply.

In Maliya, Agariyas have written to district officials as well as the chief minister to demand compensation. “We even put out videos of the damage due to cyclones to our salt,” said Rajesh Bhimani, a young Agariya. “Officials even came to survey the damage last year, but we have not received any compensation so far.”

Without financial support for losses, small-scale Agariyas turn to borrowing money.

In Surendranagar district, where salt pans are situated between 30 km and 50 km from the nearest municipality, Agariyas sell salt to traders who act as middlemen. These traders factor in expensive transportation costs and pay low rates to the Agariyas for the salt, ranging between Rs 100 and Rs 150 per tonne. When Agariyas face losses, they are often forced to ask traders for advance payments for the following year’s harvest – when they are hit by consecutive years of losses, they become trapped in a cycle of debt.

Sacks of salt being transported from the Little Rann. Some Agariyas rely on middlemen to sell their salt. When they face losses, they can find themselves trapped in a cycle of debt with these middlemen. Photo: Vaishnavi Rathore

The risk that Agariyas face can also increase depending on the variety of salt that they make. “Since Vadagara is grown just once a year, the risk to Agariyas who grow this variety is felt more in case a cyclone or rain happens, because their effort of the entire season is lost,” said Harinesh Pandya, managing trustee of the Agariya Heetrakshak Manch. “In the case of karkatch, which is a multi-crop, Agariyas can make more salt in two-month cycles in case one fails.” Pandya explained that the Manch has been working on enabling vadagara farmers to shift to making karkatch to reduce the risks they face, and that their efforts had seen some success.

The organisation is also encouraging salt-makers to diversify their products to reduce dependence on salt alone. One such product is the liquid left over after the salt crystallises, known as bittern. Bittern is rich in magnesium, bromide, and calcium salts, and can be an input for other industrial use, such as in the treatment of waste water.

In Surendranagar, some salt-makers have started selling this bittern. “I have been selling bittern for the last five years,” Savadia said. “For all my salt pans together, I get between Rs 40,000 and 50,000 per season.”

A young Agariya girl placing wild grass in her salt pan so that salt collects on it. Vadagara farmers are particularly vulnerable to extreme weather because they harvest only one crop per season. Photo: Vaishnavi Rathore

As a longer-term solution, ISMA has been demanding that salt be registered as an agricultural commodity rather than as a mining product, as it is currently categorised. “Salt is facing all the impacts of weather and climate, just as agricultural products face,” Raval said.

The change in classification would ensure that salt is assigned a minimum support price, and can be sold at marketplaces organised by Agricultural Product Market Committees, which regulate prices and safeguards producers from exploitation. This would also allow makers to purchase crop insurance for their salt, explained Jog. “Such insurance would help salt farmers at times of unseasonal rain and cyclones,” she said. “It will give a proper policy to assess the damage and compensation.”

Agariyas believe this demand is entirely justified. “We see this as farming only. It is salt farming,” said Bhimani. “If it is registered as an agricultural product, there will 100% be benefits to us. So far, all of us who make salt have only been exploited.”

But salt-makers noted that support from the government only seemed to be dwindling. Dhruna explained that in earlier years, the state government had an office to oversee the industry, but that it had since been closed. The office, known as the salt commissioner’s office, oversaw matters such as quality control and distribution, and was also responsible for assessing damages “caused to salt works due to natural calamities and to work out financial assistance to be given to affected salt works”.

In 2016, the Central government decided to close and restructure the office on the recommendation of the Department of Economic Affairs. “This was the only caretaker department focusing on salt in particular, which has been shut, and the industry has been left in the hands of god,” said Raval. “We have been demanding that the salt department should be activated again.”

In the Rann, Karai Ben took a break from raking her crystallised salt in the sharp winter sun, her bare feet white with the saline water she was working in. She pointed to her solar panels – one of the 12 panels were destroyed in Cyclone Biparjoy. The broken panel lay on the cracked desert soil a short distance away.

One of Karai Ben's 12 solar panels was destroyed in Cyclone Biparjoy. Agariyas’ struggles have been exacerbated by the government’s closure of the salt commissioner’s office. Photo: Vaishnavi Rathore

“The rains, storms, and water from the Narmada, all are increasing over the years,” she said. “But we cannot do anything to protect this salt when such situations happen, we just pray that next year, god will give us more salt.”

This reporting is made possible with support from Report for the World, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project.