The Salt Children of Akaash Ganga
The Salt Children of Akaash Ganga
Recently I had the good fortune to visit India for the first time and this was further enhanced by my journey being to Gujarat, a fine State with its eye firmly focused on the future. Yet even in this more progressive and affluent part of India, the sheer volume of people ensures poverty still exists in every corner.
In Zainabad, for example, I visited the Little Raan of Kutch, home to the Salt Children whose families, the Agarias,scrape a living, quite literally, from the natural Salt Pans that rise up from the water table below the desert. The families who work this natural resource are virtual prisoners of the Salt Merchants and Landlords who expect them to work up to 18 hours a day in intense heat, living in twig built shacks and surviving on one small meal a day. They are constantly in debt to their Landlords and what they earn for their labours pretty much ensures they will never work their way out of debt. Together they make up around 50,000 people and even this megre living is under threat as the Government sees the salt mining as harmful to the local environment. What they will do if forced to end their way of life, no one quite knows.
Look across the desert at the twinkling mirage in the distance, the blue skies, the sun shining on the salt pans and you may be forgiven for thinking - this is a pleasant place to be. But don't be fooled.It is a dangerous and desolate region where many perish working on the salt pans, unnoticed by the world who does not even know they are there.
The only hope the children have of ever escaping a lifetime farming salt, isa project founded by Prince Dhanraj Malik of Zainabad. He has established Akaash Ganga "River of Stars", a sanctuary home for children of the salt workers. Those, who are lucky enough to gain a place, are fed, housed and educated to a point where it is hoped they will be able to eventually fend for themselves and re-enter society with skills that will sustain them. In Zainabad they believe that if a woman is educated, her family is educated for she will be able to teach, protect and guide them. They also believe that a child born in the salt pans will have a mark on its forehead that ensures they will remain there forever. Shanraj Malik does not share that view.
Sadly, there are too many children in need of rescue and not enough money to house or feed them. Dhanraj Malik has a big heart, but he is not rich and it costs as much as he can raise to maintain the home and all who depend on him. Every day they have to turn away families at the gate who come to beg a place and a future for their children.
Life is tough at Akaash Ganga but the foundations are there to achieve so much more and help so many more children. All it takes is money and love. They need plenty of both.
I decided I wanted to help. I couldn't just turn away, come home and forget about these lovely children who smile and trust and show gratitude for the little they have, knowing they are indeed fortunate to have been given a home at Akaash Ganga. These are children with so much potential and a deep rooted desire to learn, work hard and benefit themselves and all others who follow in their footsteps.
The truth is, that when you meet children like this, children who are not affected by a consumer society, who don't know greed or over indulgence and who only crave survival and an opportunity to climb out of poverty, they educate us. They remind us how lucky we are to live in such relative luxury here in the West and of how much we take our own fortuitous situation for granted.
What these childrenlack is interaction with the World, evidence that there are people out there who care and will help them to help themselves. All they know is their own life. They cannot compare their situation tothat of other children in the World for they know nothing of them. They don't watch the TV news or read newspapers, all they know is their own existence.
Akaash Ganga needs teachers and builders, painters and artists, musicians and motivators to contribute a few short days interacting with the children and colouring and embellishing their lives to a point that gives them hope and confidence in themselves and the future. So far, most volunteers have been local people.
I am not rich myself, so I have decided I must do something more than my personal finances will allow. I have decided along with my 16 year old son Ashley, to do a sponsored walk to raise a million Rupees. We will do that by walking from London to Manchester, around 200 miles. I consider it as a selfish endeavour as I could really use the exercise! But, joking aside we all need to challenge ourselves and helping the children is a good excuse for me to do that.
The little Raan of Kutch is a place of barron but natural beauty. It is a regular stopover destinationfor many migratory birds and therefore attracts a great many bird watchers from all over the World. The sunsets are inspiring and when combined with huge groups of Pelicans or Flamingoes it is hard for anyone not be touched by the sheer beauty of nature.
There are animals too, in fact the Little Raan of Kutch isthe last refuge of theWild Ass, aSanctury, unique in India. There are also desert Foxes, Indian Wolves and Nilgai all veiwable from a distance and the safety of a quiet Safari Jeep.
The streets of Gujarat are not short of wildlife either. Countless cattle and goats wander freely everywhere. Not to mention dogs and the mischievious monkeys who are the only real cause of any conflict with the human residents. Life is life in Gujarat and all share the space harmoniously.
I have to confess to falling in love with Gujarat and its friendly people and, most of all, its positive outlook towards the future. Many people live on the smallest amount of money, literally surviving a day at a time. Yet I never met anyone who complained or even looked unhappy. It truly was a remarkable place to visit.
So if you are ever tempted to visit India, why not make a start in Gujarat, I am quite sure you will have a great first-time encounter with this absolutley fascinating country.
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