Sugarcane tales

The whole way from Diu was fairly green from the start. Banyan trees lined the roads and formed tunnels. Beautiful ride. Closer to the town of Somnath, we noticed something peculiar. Black smoke rose above some of the green fields.

This was sugarcane country. The smoke came from machines that help process sugarcane into jaggery (a type of unrefined sugar made from boiled-down sugarcane juice). It’s a strangely photogenic activity which I’ve shot very sparsely in the past. 

We stopped at one of the smoke-belching farms. I shot for a few minutes. So much was happening. So many opportunities for experimentation and stories. I decided that it might be worth sticking around for a while, if we could find a hotel near by. 

The area around Somnath is fascinating, like a few other areas in South Gujarat that I’ve rediscovered. I decided that we should stay at least a few days. Here are some images from the first sugarcane farm that we visited. I shot here over 3 days.

There are a few types of roles on the sugarcane farms. Different communities seem to specialize in different roles. Ratwa tribe from the border of Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh are generally hired as manual labourers.  People from Uttar Pradesh are considered good experts in overseeing the vats where jaggery is formed. Other groups are assigned other tasks.

Above are a couple of Ratwa guys carrying sugarcane to the processing machine.

Kids love for sweets is universal. The parents of these Ratwa children are likely too poor to buy candy or chocolate for them, so the kids chew on sugarcane to get their hit.

Much of the region around Somnath is green farmland. This aerial shot from the DJI Phantom helped me see the scale of just a tiny part of the region.

Sugarcane is piled onto tractors and unloaded closer to the processing machine. Here it is turned into juice which makes it’s way through pipes into vats. The juice is cooked in (generally) two vats and turned into hardened jaggery. Jaggery has all sorts of uses in Indian cuisine and even outside it. You can read more about it on Wikipedia.

The work is seasonal and the workers generally bring their families along. In fact, when it comes to the least skilled jobs, entire families are expected to contribute. The pay is low and the accommodation is usually extremely basic – straw huts or tents. 

A family of sugarcane workers during a quick break. 

The cliché “Poor, but happy” can certainly apply to many of the sugarcane workers. I’ve always admired how so often Indians who work in the most difficult, under-appreciated jobs perform those jobs with such grace and joy. I never really understood this since I've never even been able to perform 3 months of a 9-5 job gracefully. I guess it's all relative. I'm privileged and they're not.

An exhausted worker takes a break while the jaggery cooks behind him. I asked the man if he was used to the heat from the vats. He said that he no longer considered it hot.

Work actually goes on 24/7. Since there's only a limited time to harvest sugarcane, the farm owners want to maximise the output and the income. 

There are other farms to explore in the area and nomadic settlements by the road. More characters. More stories. Stay tuned...