“Mithu barabar che?” (is the salt alright?) asked Ruksana as she served a meal of prawn rice. The harmless query brought sarcastic smiles as the family sat around a large plate, all eating from one plate, as is the custom in Miyana families. “Salt is on everybody’s mind these days,” said Haider Aamad Katiya, a community elder at a fishing settlement in Venasar, a village on the edge of the Little Rann of Kutch in Gujarat’s Morbi district.

“There was a time Agariyas and fishers coexisted peacefully. The small bunds the salt workers made would dissolve in the rain and one could see a flat Rann after the monsoon. But things are changing now,” said Katiya, referring to the expansion of the salt bunds that are impacting prawn fishing.

The next morning, while going inside the Rann to collect the night’s fish catch, Ruksana walked on water. As compared to others who walked knee-deep in water, only her feet were submerged. “This is a pada (bund of a salt pan),” she pointed. “With padas growing bigger every year, the prawn’s path gets blocked. If the rain is not good, the previous salt season’s leftover brine also does not dissolve. Too much salinity does not let the prawn grow,” said Ruksana, who has been coming to Venasar since she got married some ten years ago.

Fishers from Venasar, a village on the edge of the Little Rann of Kutch in Gujarat’s Morbi district, say that there is hardly any catch recently and they haven’t earned enough even to hire a vehicle to take fishing equipment back home. Photo by Ravleen Kaur/Mongabay.

The padas at Venasar were at least submerged, but those at Surajbari at the edge of Little Rann of Kutch stood 12-15 feet tall. “If the jheenga (prawn) seedlings could drift a kilometre inside the Rann earlier, now they go only 200 metres inside. The salt embankments have disrupted the creek’s connection with the Rann, blocking the prawn’s feeding area,” said Sama Siddik Osman, ex-Sarpanch of Surajbari.

“Till ten years ago, when the pada was not there, we got a boat full (1,000 kg) of jheenga each night, but now we don’t get more than 50 kg at a time,” said Noorjahan Nekmanand, a fisher in Surajbari. “Brackish water is important for prawns to gain a good size. This happens where the Banas river water mixes with seawater. But the padas create a barrier between the two,” said Nekmanand.

“There is hardly any catch this year. We haven’t earned enough even to hire a vehicle to take our equipment back home,” said Younus Mohammad, recalling that the last good season in Venasar was in 2017.

Ripple effects

Fishing in the Little Rann of Kutch lasts for the duration of the monsoon. When the Rann starts drying up after the monsoon, small salt workers (Agariyas) move inside the Rann. The salt production from sub-soil brine takes place till March-April.

Traditional salt farming in the Little Rann of Kutch involves making pans with two-foot high bunds. Brine pumped into it from underground wells is evaporated to harvest Vadagra (large crystal salt) once in the season. However, in places where tidal water is available apart from sub-soil brine, karkach salt (small crystals) is harvested 10-12 times in the same duration. Big salt units produce karkach on a large scale.

According to the Gujarat Forest Department, 193 big salt units operate in Shikarpur part of the Sanctuary, with an average holding of 250 acres (101.18 ha) each. As per a 2015 study, from 1995 to 2015, the area under salt works in Surajbari (Hadakiya Creek) has increased from 2962 ha to 15950 ha, an increase of 438%.

“This growth is associated with a 60% reduction of fishing areas in the same region, along with a reduction of fishermen families from 5,200 at its peak a couple of decades ago to around 1,100 at present (2014),” says the TEEB report.

Big salt units produce karkach salt (small crystals) on a large scale in LRK. Photo by Ravleen Kaur/Mongabay.

“The companies make large embankments so that they don’t have to repair them after every monsoon. The embankments also prevent fresh water from entering the pan as that would dilute the degree of their salt,” said Osman. Secretary of the Shikarpur Marine Salt Association, Abhishek Parikh Parikh agreed. “If much water comes in from the creek or the rivers, our salt pans will be destroyed. Embankments are necessary to protect our livelihood,” he said.

“The 1960 map of Surajbari creeks’ area shows the area full of mangroves, none of which exist now,” said Arun Dixit, founding trustee of the Centre for Environment and Social Concerns, Ahmedabad. An October 2018 notification by the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change has designated an area ranging from 0-1.2 km around the Little Rann of Kutch as an eco-sensitive zone where only restricted activities were allowed. “At Surajbari, however, there is no eco-sensitive zone despite its crucial biodiversity value. That shows how strong the salt lobby is,” said Dixit.

Officials told Mongabay-India that the last land lease to salt companies in the Surajbari area was granted in 1992. “The lease was for 20 years, which means it expired in 2012. But they continue unabated and have even expanded operations,” alleged Osman, who, in 2020, filed a case in the National Green Tribunal against one of the salt works in the creek area. Two more petitions, one in 2018 and another in 2023, were filed in the National Green Tribunal by fishers in Morbi against salt companies in Shikarpur and Maliya for operating illegally and harming fisheries in the region.

Parikh admitted that the lease has not been renewed yet. “There was a cyclone in 1997 that drowned all the salt works. Another jolt for the salt business was the 2001 earthquake. Most companies came back to business only in 2008-’09,” said Parikh.

Different regulations regarding bund height exist for the Agariya community and the bigger salt companies. In 2023, the Forest Department issued conditional registration cards to Agariyas, acknowledging their traditional salt-producing rights. To produce salt inside the Wild Ass Sanctuary, Agariyas must adhere to conditions, such as limiting bund height to two feet and avoiding machine use to protect wildlife. In contrast, Shikarpur, with 193 recognised units since 2016, has different rules allowing them to adjust pada height as needed.

“It does impact prawn fisheries, but we can’t help it as a previous order has already granted them the rights,” said a Forest Department official on conditions of anonymity.

Maliya fish market. Ginger prawn fishing is one of the primary sources of livelihood in LRK. As the salt units expand, small fisheries in LRK are impacted. Photo by Ravleen Kaur/Mongabay.

Rann sarovar

The latest threat to ginger prawn fisheries is a proposal to convert the entire 5,000 square kilometres of the Little Rann of Kutch into a freshwater lake called the Rann Sarovar. The idea, a brainchild of Jaysukh Patel, managing director of clock company Ajanta-Oreva, is to build an earthen weir (mud barrier) at the site of the 1.19 km long old Surajbari bridge to prevent seawater from coming inside LRK.

“As of now, the Little Rann of Kutch is a lake only for three to four months. If an intrusion barrier is created, fresh water from rivers draining into LRK will not flow away into the creek, creating a freshwater lake that will last the entire year. It can fulfil drinking water and irrigation needs of parched North Gujarat besides increasing groundwater level,” says a booklet about the project.

Rann Sarovar promises land reclamation, tourism development, water sports, and better livelihoods for salt workers and fishers through aquaculture.

“If the creek is blocked, prawn seedlings can’t come in. Rann Sarovar will be the end of not just prawn fishers but small salt works as well as the fragile Rann ecology,” said Osman.

While Rann Sarovar (a proposed freshwater lake) promises land reclamation, tourism development, water sports, and better livelihoods for salt workers and fishers, local communities say that if the creek is blocked, it would impact their livelihoods. Photo by Ravleen Kaur/Mongabay.

Documents reveal that in 2019, the Prime Minister’s Office sent the project to the Ministry of Water Resources and the Central Water Commission for review, which raised doubts about it. After this, it was transferred to the Gujarat Government for assessment as water is a state subject, said a state-level official who did not wish to be identified.

Feasibility studies were underway when a bridge on the Machchu River in the Morbi district collapsed in October last year, killing 133 people. Oreva was responsible for the operation and maintenance of the bridge.

The project is technically not feasible, says Pankti Jog, who works with the Agariya Hitrakshak Manch, a non-profit working with Agariyas in LRK. “High rate of evaporation from the wetland would increase humidity in the otherwise arid region nearby and impact the cultivation of cumin, castor and cotton. The biomass flowing with fresh water from the LRK to the Marine National Park downstream in the Gulf of Kutch is a source of nutrients for marine life. Reports have already pointed out that salinity in the GoK has gone up. Creating an artificial bund will severely affect the Marine National Park,” she said.

Salt water and river water mix at Machchu river. Photo by Ravleen Kaur/Mongabay.

The second part of this two-part series looks at how the expanding salt works are killing small fisheries in Gujarat’s Little Rann of Kutch.

This article was first published on Mongabay.