Reviving the Aalemanes/Jaggery Units of Karnataka

Reviving Aalemanes

Mandya district is in the news for a wrong reason: for being a hotbed of suicides in the current spate of farm suicides that Karnataka is experiencing. Most farmers who killed themselves 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, and providing an alternate marketing avenue to sugarcane farmers in the area.

Aalemane literally translates to ‘processing house’.  As sugarcane cultivation expanded in the district along with expansion of surface and other irrigation, so did the Aalemane enterprise in the district. 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 units that are functional and their requirements). In Mandya taluka alone, some estimate that there used to be 4000 units at one point of time.

This was in the 1990s – however, setting up of several sugar mills (government, private, cooperative) in the district left its own impact on jaggery units with farmers supplying their cane to the mills, and in the process also abandoning cultivation of varieties that are 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. Some recall that the first adverse blow was in 1996 when the KRS project declared a modernization programme for the irrigation canal and stopped water supply. This affected sugarcane production and the jaggery units.

The main reasons for the decline now 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 labour-intensive process. A typical unit requires 10 or more labourers, 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 labourers and in such a situation, it is seen that even Uttar Pradesh and Bihar people are running these units by bringing in their own labour 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 adopted by adding many chemicals that are unhealthy.

It was Krishna Prasad of Sahaja Samrudha who prompted me to go and look at the current status and prospects related to jaggery-making units, when a group of around 30 persons assembled in Mandya recently to see what can be done about the crisis that is pushing hundreds of farmers to commit suicides. We all took different responsibilities in that meeting, and I agreed to study this further to the best of my ability and come up with a set of recommendations in consultation with experts in the area.

In that meeting, the main thrust of the discussions was focused on:

  • As an immediate step, to see how banks and others can be stopped from putting further pressure on farmers for loan repayment – while a crackdown on moneylenders who are into usury is indeed commendable, in the absence of any alternate and fair credit systems that are available to farmers, it is not clear where they can borrow from for their current crop investments! It is also not clear why defaulting sugar mills cannot be asked to put out their databases on which sugarcane producing/supplying farmers do they owe and how much, and why banks cannot take cognizance of the same while chasing up on loans. It was also pointed out that for most (commercial) banks, agriculture in any case is not the bulk of their business and therefore, they should be asked not to send any more notices to farmers; it was pointed out that remunerative prices and actual payments reaching the farmers is very important in this crisis.
  • In the medium term, it is important to focus on finding out more marketing avenues for sugarcane cultivators, like revival of jaggery making units but in a form that is safe for consumers; it is also important to see how sugar mills can run more profitably – this requires a whole spectrum of interventions:
  • The medium term should also see sugarcane production (and also paddy and sericulture) improvements – it is important that water and chemical consumption be changed drastically in the production of cane. Organic farming with improved agronomy like the kind promoted by stalwarts like Suresh Desai need sustained promotion. In the said meeting in Mandya, several farmers’ groups came forward to try this out. This will bring down expenses, resource/water consumption and also bring in more crops into cultivation along with sugarcane, even as yield improves. Similarly, in the case of paddy cultivation too, farmers tied up with Nandish, another well known farmer, to try out agro-ecological improvements.
  • It was also accepted that the real long term solution lies in diversifying away from crops like sugarcane and paddy. Revival of millet cultivation was discussed, along with processing units being set up and different marketing avenues to be explored including highway outlets/restaurants.

AN EXPLORATION AROUND REVIVAL OF AALEMANES/JAGGERY UNITS

Ananthoo and I went to Mandya district on the 8th and 9th of September, to understand better the issues around the traditional jaggery making units and why their numbers are reducing, why they are not able to support sugarcane producers much, how they are getting into undesirable / dangerous processing techniques and what needs to be done now.

We met up with Mr Somanna, the President of the Jaggery-makers Association, another farmer leader called Thimme Gowda who was earlier the Secretary of a Cooperative Society and Mr Krishnamoorthy of Nanjungud taluka in Mysuru district, who is into organic sugarcane production and also organic jaggery production (his powdered organic jaggery that he got us to taste and sample was awesome!!). We spent several hours chatting with them on a range of issues starting from government policy on import duty on Chinese silk to how Kisan Credit Card design can be improved. As is the case with most Kannadigas, we found them extremely patient and hospitable too. We also visited a cooperative sugar mill the next day (PSSK in Darasaguppe), helped by Shri Nanjunde Gowda, the President. The General Manager Shri Bore Gowda took us around and patiently explained everything. While we could not meet up with Dr Kesavaiah in the Zonal Research Station of University of Agricultural Sciences as planned, we had a long conversation with him on the phone after returning to Bangalore.

The current situation

At present, there does not seem to be a ready list or register of all jaggery units – functioning right now, as well as defunct ones. To create one such list in itself a useful exercise for the government to take up.

Employment: Each jaggery unit on an average supports around 10 workers. If the unit is run round-the-clock, it would require two shifts for day and night operations and the numbers could be upto 25 then. Just Mandya’s 5000 units could support 125000 persons. And if run for 180 days as most units do, that is 2.25 crore person-days. MGNREGS, any one?? That’s the potential in any case. It is reported that there was a time when there was large influx of labourers on a seasonal basis from other neighboring districts into the aalamanes of Mandya taluka.

At a conservative estimate of currently operational 500 units, with 10 workers each, for 6 months of functioning, these aalamanes can still provide 9 lakh days of employment.

The workers are not paid daily wages these days but are paid a piece rate per quintal of jaggery produced. The average earnings per day in the currently-running units seems to work out to Rs. 250/-. However, we also found that several workers would have borrowed large amounts (interest-free) from Aalamane owners at their time of need and working now to repay the same.

The person who is watching over the vats and deciding when to pour out the concentrated, semi-liquid jaggery onto the drying pans gets paid higher than the others for the extra skills he brings, for watching over the vats continuously and for adding various chemicals at different times.

Sugarcane Absorption/Market: Our informants told us that nearly 4 lakh quintals of jaggery is produced in the district, which means an absorption capacity of nearly 5 lakh tons of sugarcane by these jaggery units. This could work out to 1000 tons of cane per aalemane (contrast this with the crushing capacity of 3500 tons per day in a sugar mill like the PSSK! There are 5-6 sugar mills in the district of Mandya, as opposed to 500 jaggery units; sugar mills account for at least 75% of the cane procurement).

If in their operational period of 6 months (normally) to 9 months (some units), each unit can absorb upto 1000 tons, that works out to cane from around 18 acres with the average productivity calculated at 55-60 tons per acre.

A typical sugar mill might cater to 10000 to 15000 sugarcane farmers, registered beforehand. If they require more cane, they will purchase from non-registered farmers too. On the other hand, the 500 Aalamanes can collectively take care of 10000 acres’ cane produce.

Economics of each unit:

The per day output of jaggery ranges from 5 quintals to 10 quintals per unit/aalemane which works during the day (not 24 hours). Over a period of at least 100 days (this is a conservative figure, after deducting holidays, while most units work for around 180 days), the average production per unit will be at least 60-70 tons of jaggery.

For every ton of sugarcane, there used to be a time when the varieties sown were suitable and the conversion rate to jaggery would be 10%, and therefore a quintal of jaggery. Now, it has come down to 7 to 9 quintals.

While jaggery price was around Rs. 3400/- per quintal last year, it has come down to Rs. 2400/- this year. The price offered for procuring one ton of sugarcane from cane farmers is Rs. 1600-1800/- by the jaggery units (far lower than the FRP – fair and remunerative price announced by CACP at Rs 2300/- this time). Only 800/- to 900/- rupees are offered to the farmer with the unit spending upto Rs.1000/ton directly for harvesting. After spending Rs.1600 to 1900/- for the key raw material which is sugarcane, the unit spends on labour costs, machine running costs (electricity and backup diesel in addition to maintenance costs) and some inputs in processing, which are mostly chemicals. The fuel for burning the vats of sugarcane juice is from the cane pulp or sippe. The crusher itself has to run on electricity or diesel pump. It is estimated that the cost of crushing a ton of sugarcane using electricity is around Rs. 100/- (lower than this, in fact), while using diesel costs upto Rs. 150-200/ton of cane (or 0.8 quintal of jaggery).

The labour cost works out to at least Rs. 300/quintal for the main team of workers, while the “bella” person (the expert at the vat) gets Rs.55/quintal as higher wages. It is worth noting that men and women are sometimes employed in equal numbers in these jaggery units, and also paid equal wages.

All in all, it is estimated that at least Rs. 2100/- are incurred on an average by the aalemane owner to produce one quintal of jaggery.  When sold at Rs. 2400/- per quintal to traders in the APMC, it leaves a margin of upto Rs. 300/quintal of jaggery for the aalemane entrepreneur.

In one season of jaggery making, this is equal to a profit of 1.8 lakhs to 2.1 lakh rupees. However, price fetched depends on the quality of the jaggery made (texture, color, flavor etc. – not all lots come out uniformly and the timing of pouring out the concentrated juice or syrup onto the drying pan is very important). Further, any repairs and slowing down in the production processes affect these margins.

It is estimated that to set up a new unit of aalemane, it will cost around 40 lakh rupees as the initial investment cost including on the building, machines, vats etc.

Process of Jaggery Making: The process of jaggery making is much slower than the production of sugar in a sugar mill, of course.

The aalemane entrepreneur is very choosy about the farms from where cane is to be procured for jaggery making. The variety sown by the farmer (and its conversion rate) as well as nitrogen application (quantity applied and when applied) are carefully observed by the aalemane owner before deciding on whether a particular sugarcane farm is suitable for jaggery making or not.

The sugarcane is first crushed in a mechanized crusher. An outlet here pours out the juice into vats where the juice is kept on slow boil constantly for 6-7 hours. Once a certain consistency is obtained after evaporation, the semi-solid syrup is poured out onto flat receptacles which dry out/cool down the syrup. From here, jaggery is moved into either bucket or cube moulds before being dried further and packed.

Many harmful chemicals are used in jaggery making these days, ending up making it more dangerous to consume than sugar. These are mostly to give it a light golden color since consumers demand the same, as passed on by traders to the aalemanes. Hydrosulphate, safolate, soda, phosphoric acid etc., all go into the vats at some point of time or the other. In fact, ironically enough, some jaggery units are even adding sugar to jaggery making processes!

Another shortcoming being observed is that not all jaggery units maintain the requisite hygiene levels.

Nutritional value of Jaggery Vs. Sugar: In jaggery making, all the ingredients in sugarcane remain intact – it is mainly the moisture content that is removed and nothing else is removed; in the case of sugar, it is mainly sucrose whereas there are more constituents remaining in jaggery.

WHAT NEEDS TO BE DONE NOW

It clearly appears that there are many win-win possibilities in moving the jaggery units in the right direction. For this, the following are needed:

TECHNICAL UPGRADATION OF JAGGERY MAKING: This is about both the process as well as the machinery/infrastructure. It appears that improvements in jaggery production with technical upgradation and non-chemical processes are a must and this is quite possible. The VC Farm/ZRS of UAS-Bangalore has in fact outsourced its facility to an organic sugarcane and jaggery production group this year. The scientists will guide them in chemical-free jaggery making. The technical upgradation can be centred around greater extraction of juice (which is only around 50% right now, reportedly, and can be improved upto 70%); better hygiene in the entire preparation; drudgery-reduction; dryer technology and fuel use efficiency being improved; better moulds and so on. This might mean an investment of at least 10 lakh rupees per aalemane, which will mean 50 crores’ investment. However, it would be well worth doing so, from the government. It could be a combination of state government resources and funds from the Ministry of Food Processing which is today setting aside outlays for “mega food parks” and so on. It is felt that the benefits from such an upgradation are well worth it, in terms of employment generated, profits of the entrepreneurs which will have a positive effect in the rural economy, savings in electricity/diesel etc.

CONSUMER AWARENESS AROUND JAGGERY CONSUMPTION: Consumers should give up their dangerous ignorance around light-colored jaggery and their obsession with sugar, and should embrace wholeheartedly the goodness of non-chemical, traditional jaggery. The government needs to invest on consumer awareness campaigns for this. Ready markets could be created by the government purchasing and supplying jaggery in the PDS system rather than sugar; this of course requires great political will, given that the sugar barons are usually big political leaders.

FARMERS TO SHIFT TO AGRO-ECOLOGICAL SUGARCANE CULTIVATION: 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.

State government of Karnataka should 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 to financial investments of upto 10 lakh rupees per unit for better processing including drudgery reduction in aalamanes (while sugar mills are all about big capitalists, these aalemanes are about rural small entrepreneurs); and more support to farmers who adopt organic practices in sugarcane production that has to result 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 industry which will provide rural employment, rural enterprise development and also marketing avenues for farmers in deep trouble. All of this is possible, provided there is a will to tackle the crisis.

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  • Kavitha Kuruganti is Convenor of ASHA (Alliance for Sustainable & Holistic Agriculture)

A post-script will be written to this, centred around recommendations around sugar mills’ revival, as per our key informants.

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