Muzaffarnagar to Mandya is a huge distance to cover, but Raj Singh has been making the trip every year for two decades now. What connects the two sugar bowls — one in western Uttar Pradesh and the other in the Cauvery basin in Karnataka — are people like Singh who earn a living by making jaggery out of sugar cane. Around Holi, he arrives in Mandya with a team of 10 people and takes charge of one of the many rural jaggery units in the district, some 100 km from Bengaluru. By Deepavali, he is back in Muzaffarnagar.

But Singh is not a happy man these days. Many of Mandya’s famed jaggery units have either closed down or suspended operations mainly because of the fluctuating prices of the sweet lumps. A severe labour shortage is another reason. Unreliable power supply has increased the production cost as the units have no option but to run on diesel. Add to these the lack of water to support the rain-fed sugar cane crop. Now with a good monsoon in the Cauvery basin, people hope the closed units will spring back to life.

Singh, who has 30 years of experience in jaggery-making, works in a unit at Dodda Byadarahalli village in Pandavapura taluk. There are plenty of orders during festivals and the wedding season, he says. But the local labourers remain unskilled and are not interested in the work. Singh earns ₹1,000 and his team ₹800 each for making 1,500 kg, or 300 boxes, of jaggery — the minimum daily production.

But the prospects are turning bitter by the day. Of the 530 registered units in seven taluks of Mandya, at least 65% are facing an acute shortage of sugar cane and over 50% have become non-functional in recent weeks, say officials at the District Industries Centre and the Agriculture Department. The Agriculture Produce Marketing Committee used to collect 2,400 to 2,600 quintals of jaggery a day. But now, the arrivals have dipped to between 1,000 quintals and 1,300 quintals, forcing many traders to shut shop. The still-functioning units face complaints of excessive use of chemicals. Food scientists have been suggesting chemical-free processes.

Text and images by K. Muralikumar

(Muralikumar is a Special News Photographer of The Hindu based in Bengaluru)

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