About 150 kilometres from Gujarat state's prime city, Ahmedabad, lies the salt marsh Little Rann of Kutch, home to the Indian wild asses, a protected species. The Little Rann is also known for its seasonal salt panning activity, but surprisingly, the humans working in these salt pans are not half as protected.
It was exactly a year ago that Ahmedabad University's School of Engineering and Applied Science was approached by the women's collective Self-Employed Women's Association (SEWA) to help solve some serious challenges its members, the salt pan workers or agarias in the Little Rann of Kutch region, were facing. After preliminary research and discussions with the community leaders and grassroots workers, Dean of the School Sunil Kale and two of his faculty colleagues – Nitin Banker, Associate Professor, and Sanket Patel, Assistant Professor, decided to design solutions.
Professor Kale is a firm believer in promoting technology development in collaboration with industry and entrepreneurs to impact society. He says, "The SEWA workers in Little Rann face myriad problems: Digging wells manually that mostly result in no groundwater, shelters heating up in the sweltering heat, food getting spoilt, poor clothing and footwear, and these are just to begin with. The agarias are also among the lowest-paid entrepreneurs in our country. As an engineering School, we can use technology to alter their conditions significantly."
The School of Engineering and Applied Science is leveraging Professor Banker's research interests in Conventional And Heat-Driven Refrigeration Systems, Thermal Management Solutions, and Solar Thermal Energy, and Professor Patel's research interests in Industry 4.0 Sensors and Automation Systems, Internet of Things, and Intelligent Transport Systems, to help systematically address the challenges faced by the salt pan workers. Professor Banker says, "We carried out an initial survey towards the end of last year's season, May 2022. The heat was scorching, and seeing them work with simple rubber slippers in the salt pans was unbearable. We decided to prioritise their challenges and systematically work on solutions."
The most critical problem requiring immediate attention was identifying wells with groundwater. Professor Kale says, "The agarias dig their wells despite the gush of seawater that comes in. The underground water is 10 times more saline than the seawater. However, after the seawater has moved out, the agarias are clueless about identifying where they will hit groundwater." So they dig. The digging begins manually, taking about 3-4 days to bore deep enough to hit groundwater.
Professor Patel enlisted the help of Drashti Soni, a BTech final year student of the School of Engineering and Applied Science, in developing an App to create a repository of wells with groundwater. He says, "We wanted to implement a long-term solution for this problem and thought, 'How about we map all existing and new wells to check for groundwater?' That's how we built an App on an open-access platform.” The workers in this remote area do not have high-speed internet nor the skill to run a full-scale app, but WhatsApp is still popular, and now the agarias are mapping their wells. The App works thus: Once a well is dug, the worker has to fill in a simple, multiple-choice question that classifies the well into 'Yes' (has water) and 'No' (does not have water).
With the agarias having mapped over 200 wells in the space of four months, the School is now interested in superimposing this data on the mapping data from Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) to build a comprehensive understanding of the overall groundwater availability at Little Rann. "We hope to make it as easy as standing at a position, hovering your phone over the area expected to have groundwater, and checking on the App if it does," says Professor Kale. If it does not, they can save crucial time and effort that is invested in digging.
The next big problem is the manual digging of wells. It is a complex process that involves a lot of time, and the cost to the agarias is much beyond the money. It's their health that is being compromised. Standing in the salt pans has grave implications for their bones and skin. The faculty are in the process of devising a small mechanical tool that would be not only easy to transport but also cost-efficient and non-polluting. Professor Patel says, "Thanks to SEWA, the agarias have solar panels to help with their energy needs, and these will also power this mechanised tool we are working on. Considering that Little Rann is a protected nature reserve, we intend to make this a low-noise tool. We will test it on our Campus, and when the salt panning season starts this year in October, it will be ready to use."
While the estimated cost of developing the mechanised tool is INR 2 lakh (including the trials), the faculty expects to bring it down to approximately INR 50,000, once developed. “One such tool can be used by many agarias. It will just take about 2 hours to dig a 50-foot hole which can take days with manual digging. This will improve their financial capabilities as they need to source more water in the hot summer as the evaporation rate is faster. The simple maths works to more wells is more water is more salt production,” he adds.
Professor Kale says they are simultaneously working on cooling methods to improve living and working conditions. "Next in line are devices to work desert coolers and water pumps, and even basic food, shelter, and clothing requirements. The SEWA sisters recently received large bamboo headcovers from SEWA Assam, and they are thrilled that someone is thinking of their hardships and coming forward to help. We hope to have a similar if not greater impact on their lives."