Manikandan Sudhakar Eillam, a native of Nachivayal near Marayoor in Idukki district of Kerala, is one of the sugarcane farmers who has decided not to take up sugarcane farming in the next season. Reason: The continuous fall in the price of Marayoor Sharkara or jaggery that is traditionally produced by the farmers of this town. Due to this, Manikandan’s debts went through the roof.
“I have been doing sugarcane farming for the last 15 years. Currently, I have leased 15 acres of land and taken Rs 10 lakh loan from Marayoor Co-operative Bank to cultivate sugarcane. I expected a good harvest and a good price for the jaggery. But now, I lost my hopes,” Manikandan told TNM.
He further explains his decision not to cultivate sugarcane the next season. “Earlier, we used to get Rs 65 to Rs 70 for one kilogram of jaggery. Ten years ago, the wage for the workers at the sugarcane farm was Rs 300 for men and Rs 100 for women. But now, since 2018, it has increased to Rs 500 for men and Rs 250 for women. Every year, I provide 12 bags of jaggery from one acre of the land in the form of the lease amount. After paying this, I do not receive any profit and hence, I have no way to repay my loan. For these reasons, I have decided that I will not cultivate the next season.”
Manikandan is not alone in this; many other farmers in Marayoor, too, have decided to avoid the sugarcane farming in future.
“The future of the sugarcane farmers is in limbo. If we receive a proper price for the jaggery in one year, it will fall next year. Hence, the uncertainty always lurks,” he said.
The sweet Marayoor jaggery
Sweet but not salty, rich iron and less sodium content, less insoluble impurities and dark brown colour - this is how the locals here describe Marayoor Undasharkara (jaggery balls), one of the sweetest jaggeries produced in Idukki.
Marayoor, located 53 kilometres from Munnar town, is a town famous for its sandalwood forests and jaggery production.
Marayoor jaggery is made using traditional methods, in a traditional set-up; and not in factories using modern equipment. The jaggery production takes place on the sugarcane farm itself, in a makeshift shed with a thatched roof.
The production of the jaggery takes place in four steps.
First, the raw sugar is manually extracted from the freshly harvested canes using a diesel-run sugarcane roller until it is pulped into a fibrous residue. As the juice is extracted, the impurities are sieved simultaneously before it is boiled into a thick syrup on a large wok. The bagasse - the waste residue from the extraction - is used to fuel the wok. Once the syrup thickens, the jaggery is poured into a trough. Before the mixture cools down, it is rolled into the jaggery balls.
Workers from Onakkallur, a village in Udumalpet in Tamil Nadu, are engaged in this process. The sugarcane farmers here not only hire these workers but their shed and equipment as well. Once the process of making jaggery is completed at one farm, the workers dismantle the shed and equipment and head to the next field. For this, a set amount is collected.
Duplicity threatens authenticity
Of late, however, this traditional method is facing threat from the jaggery coming from Tamil Nadu. The flow of the fake Marayoor jaggery to the market has contributed to the constant fall in the price of the original jaggery produced in Marayoor, thus forcing farmers not to take up sugarcane cultivation.
A few years ago, areas near Marayoor and Kanthalloor panchayaths - Pattam Colony, Mashi, Koodavayal, Peradipallam and Meladi - widely cultivated sugarcane. This new threat, however, has reduced the sugarcane farming area from 2,500-2,700 hectors to 1,200 to 1,500 hectors.
Currently, nearly one thousand small-scale farmers are engaged in sugarcane farming. Most of the farmers here own half acre to two acres of land, and sugarcane farming is the only source of income for them, says K P Rajan, President of Anchunad Karimp Ulpadaka Sahakarana Sangam, a sugarcane producers society in Idukki’s Anchunad.
Bhaktavalsalan, a 64-year-old native of Mashi near Marayoor, was a sugarcane farmer who was active for the last several years. But now, he is a daily wage worker at a jaggery production unit run by the Marayoor Co-operative Bank. Due to the continuous loss from sugarcane farming, he sold out his two-acre worth land.
Over 60 percent of the land in the Marayoor and Kanthalloor area was once owned by Marayoor villagers. Later, the land was bought by other natives, says Bhaktavalsalan.
“Every year, they started incurring loss in the sugarcane farming and eventually sold their land. Over several years, I lost 4 acres of land. As a result, I am working as a daily wage worker,” he adds.
Although Bhaktavalsalan belongs to a tribal community, two years ago, he was added to the Hindu Vellalan community and not in the Other Backward Classes category. “As a result, I didn’t get financial assistance from the government, as I was included in the upper caste community,” adds Bhaktavalsalan.
Incidentally, the Vellalan community members have been living only in Marayoor and Kanthalloor Panchayaths in Kerala. But the same community members living in Kottakkudi in Tamil Nadu have been included in the Hindu Malaveda tribal community and hence get all financial assistance from the government.
“We have no other means to sustain ourselves. We only know sugarcane farming, which has been practised by our ancestors as well,” says Bhaktavalsalan.
G Rajan is a sugarcane farmer who has been producing and selling Marayoor jaggery since 1980. According to Rajan, one bag of jaggery weighing 60 kg will fetch the farmers only Rs 2,400. Two years ago, the farmers received Rs 3,400 for the same quantity.
“Ten years ago, I sold Marayoor jaggery for Rs 60 per kilogram. But now, the price has fallen to 40. The costs of jaggery production and other agricultural production also increased in the last 10 years,” he told TNM.
“Due to the price fall, many farmers gave up sugarcane farming and started cultivating vegetables and other crops like areca nut, coconut and coffee. If the present situation were to continue, within five years, the famous Marayoor jaggery will vanish from the history,” he warns.
Rajan also believes that in terms of quality, there is no competition for Marayoor jaggery. “Vendors in Tamil Nadu produce low-quality jaggery with sugarcane waste and low-quality sugar. These knockoffs are then sold under the label of Marayoor jaggery for Rs 35 to 38 at wholesale price. They are available in the market from Rs 40 to 42. Besides, there is no proper verification to handle such products at check posts,” he said.
“In 2002, the Kerala High Court ordered that the Travancore Devaswaom Board (TDB) use Marayoor jaggery at Sabarimala temple to prepare the Aravana prasadam. However, the Devaswam board did not take any favourable step towards this. If Sabarimala and other temples in the state decide to use Marayoor jaggery, it will open a new market to the farmers and the devotees will get pure prasadam from the temples.”
According to KP Rajan, “Ten years ago, over 2,000 farmers were engaged in sugarcane farming. Currently, 832 farmers are engaged in sugarcane farming in the Marayoor and Kanthalloor Panchayaths.”
Considering the high costs involved in running a jaggery production unit, the Marayoor Co-operative Bank started a jaggery production unit to help the sugarcane farmers in the area. George Kunjappan, Secretary of Marayoor service co-operative bank, told TNM, “Sugarcane farmers take their sugarcane to our production unit and we produce the jaggery for them. We collect a small amount as rent from these farmers for the production. Despite this, the price fall has affected the farmers badly.”
George also stresses that the low-quality jaggery from Tamil Nadu should not be sold in various government agencies. “Two years ago, several government agencies such as Kerala State Civil Supplies Corporation (Supplyco) and Kerala State Horticultural Products Development Corporation (Horticorp) sold Marayoor jaggery in the markets during Onam. The product was well received in the markets. If the government agencies take similar steps to promote a pure variety of Marayoor jaggery in their shops and markets, it will provide a big opportunity to the farmers in Marayoor and assure them a suitable market and income,” he says.
GI tag to give new lease of life to Marayoor jaggery
Giving a ray of hope to the sugarcane farmers, the Intellectual Property cell under the Centre has completed the process to verify the purity of Marayoor jaggery and submitted their recommendation to the central government. After completing the legal formalities, the central government will issue Geographical Indication (GI tag) to the product, Dr CR Elsi, Director of Kerala Regional Agricultural Research Centre told TNM.
“As part of the initiative, we visited the Marayoor area and studied the product. Our report reveals that it is a product exclusively produced by the natives in Marayoor,” she said.
“When the Marayoor jaggery gets the GI tag, only the natives of the area can produce and market the product exclusively. If anyone produces or markets fake jaggery, they can legally challenge the issue. We hope the GI tag will open new windows to the farmers,” she added.