Jaggery producers aim for independence
The small thatch roof structures nestled amongst the sugar cane fields to the west of Madurai city go largely unnoticed by passing traffic. But it is within these simple buildings that men and women like Prema turn sugar cane into jaggery which is sold in the markets throughout Tamil Nadu.
Working in teams of 7 or 8 the sugar cane is first fed by hand through a set of wheels and crushed into juice. Prema and others take turns stirring the boiling sugar cane juice for several hours, enduring the smoke and fumes which choke the air under the thatch roof. Finally the boiled juice is poured into a wide open tub to cool and is then hardened into the shape of small cones of jaggery, ready for the city markets.
For a day’s work Prema and her colleagues each get paid 200 Rupees (NZ$4). But the work is intermittent and sometimes they will have week without any work or pay to support their family.
Prema and hundreds of other men and women making jaggery throughout the countryside want to establish their own cooperative, so that they can take ownership of the jaggery making for themselves and ensure they get decent pay for the work they do. To achieve this, over the next 2 years under the project they will draw up a constitution, elect a Board, and develop a business plan, all with the support of the Tamil Nadu Labour Union. Importantly they’ll be lobbying together to get the local government to provide them with a development grant so they can purchase the vats and equipment to make Jaggery themselves.
As Dalits (untouchable caste), Prema and the other workers are well aware that getting support from the government and taking ownership of the jaggery making and selling process will be a challenge. But she says that with their collective power it can be achieved. “If we are going and talking to the government as an individual, you have to wait and they just say go away. But when we go as a group, then they will have some respect for us.”