Mandya district in Karnataka has been in the news for being a current hotbed of farmer suicides. Kavitha Kuruganti writes about how the jaggery units, along with consumers and the government, can help lead a revival which addresses the farm crisis on the ground.
Most farmers who killed themselves in Karnataka are from Mandya and many of the Mandya farm suicides are of sugarcane cultivators.But Mandya is also known for something else.As ‘cottage industry’(or micro-enterprises in today’s parlance) goes, Mandya district’s “Aalemanes” or jaggery units thrived in their heyday, both in terms of providing employment to many and giving neat profits to the owners of the jaggery units, but also absorbing a substantial part of the sugarcane that gets grown in the district. Providing an alternate marketing avenue to sugarcane farmers in the area. Aalemaneliterally translates to ‘processing house’.
As sugarcane cultivation expanded in the district along with expansion of surface and other irrigation, so did the Aalemane enterprise. It is said that there used to be around 5000 units. (There is no system for registration of Aalemanes, to keep track of the number of functional units and their requirements). This was in the 1990s. However, setting up of several sugar mills (government, private and cooperative) in the district left its own impact on jaggery units with farmers supplying their cane to the mills. In the process, also abandoning cultivation of varieties particularly suitable for jaggery-making.
Meanwhile, as sugar started acquiring popularity as the main sweetener in Indian diet, consumers also started forgetting about the nutritional qualities of jaggery. Especially as made traditionally, in a non-chemical way. As demand for jaggery fell, it impacted the jaggery units further.
Today, it is reported that only around 500 aalemane units are functional in Mandya. The main reasons are cited to be volatility of jaggery prices in the market making it unattractive for the entrepreneurs who run these, and the fact that jaggery-making is a labor-intensive process. A typical unit requires 10 or more laborers, and if round-the-clock operations are taken up, it easily requires double this number. With drudgery involved in the operations. It is said that there is a shortage of such laborers and in such a situation, it is seen that even Uttar Pradesh and Bihar people are running these units by bringing in their own labor too.Lack of regular and adequate hours of supply of electricity, forcing the units to run on diesel, has further cut into the margins available in this enterprise. Most importantly, consumer demand for jaggery has come down in the country, even as producers of jaggery are compromising consumer health in the jaggery-making processes, by adding many unhealthy chemicals.
Conversations of members of ASHA (Alliance for Sustainable & Holistic Agriculture) with jaggery unit owners, workers, association office bearers and agricultural scientists working on improving jaggery production starting from breeding suitable varieties to producing non-chemical jaggery. This shows that investing in the revival of jaggery units can be a serious medium term solution to the current crisis. While shift away from monocropped sugarcane and its intensive cultivation paradigm in Mandya could be part of the real long term solution. Either way, it appears that there are many win-win possibilities in moving the jaggery units in the right direction: for this, improvements in jaggery production with technical upgradation and non-chemical processes are a must.
On the other hand, consumers could give up their dangerous ignorance around light-colored jaggery and welcome the goodness of non-chemical, traditional jaggery. We need more farmers to step forward to adopt agro-ecological approaches in sugarcane production as demonstrated by stalwarts like Suresh Desai – with very low water consumption, high yields and intercropping. Once demand for good jaggery picks up amongst consumers, farmers will also find more avenues than non-functioning and non-paying sugar mills for their cane. Even as several sugar mills are yet to start crushing this season, a drive around Pandavapura in Mandya shows that the jaggery units continue to run (though paying only Rs. 800 to 900/ton of sugarcane to farmers after absorbing harvesting cost of upto Rs.1000/ton. Even though the FRP for sugarcane is Rs.2300/-. This is because jaggery prices have also seen a crash in the market).
The state government can create a Jaggery Revival Scheme which will involve consumer awareness around jaggery as a good sweetener, registration and extension support to jaggery making units. In addition, financial investments of upto 10 lakh rupees per unit for better processing, including drudgery reduction in aalamanes (while sugar mills are about big capitalists, these aalemanes are about rural small entrepreneurs); and more support to farmers who adopt organic practices in sugarcane production which often results in dramatic reduction in water and chemical consumption, with yield improvements. The Ministry of Food Processing in the Government of India, instead of coming up with only mega food park schemes should focus on these kinds of cottage industries which strengthen rural employment, rural enterprise development and also marketing avenues for farmers in a crisis. All of this is possible, provided there is a will to tackle the trouble the farmers are in.
- Kavitha Kuruganti is Convenor of ASHA (Alliance for Sustainable & Holistic Agriculture)