Jaggery, an essential ingredient for preparing Pongal delicacy, may be in short supply this season, due to drastic drop in its production at Salem.
Farmers rued that after a few years of poor yield, sugarcane production improved in Tamil Nadu in 2018, but dropped again last year due to poor rains. The shortage of cane has pushed up its prices this year affecting jaggery producers.
In 2018, one tonne of cane was priced at Rs 1,500 to Rs 2,000 depending upon its quality. “This year, we are ready to shell out even Rs 3,500 per tonne for cane grown across Salem and its neighbouring districts. Yet, it’s difficult to source cane as farmers have switched over to other crops,” said R Arumugam, a jaggery manufacturer in Salem.
Farmers claimed that the cane brought from Mandya does not match the quality of local cane. “About 130 kgs of jaggery can be made out of one tonne of cane from Tamil Nadu, whereas only 100 kgs can be made from the cane in Mandya. This Pongal, the jaggery manufacturers in Salem require around 150 tonnes of cane per day. Of this, a major chunk of nearly 70 tonnes of cane comes from Mandya and the remaining is met out by cane grown in Tamil Nadu. Normally, we may require 100 tonnes of cane a day,” added S Sathish.
Thus, the existing shortage of cane has resulted in marginal increase in prices of jaggery. One sippam (30kgs) of jaggery, which was sold for Rs 1200 a few months ago, is now priced at Rs 1,500.
For Pongal, the production of jaggery has been undertaken by over 150 manufacturers spread over in areas such as Kamalapuram, Karuppur, Thottiapuram, Desiangadu and Akkarapatti in Salem.
Though jaggery is made at several locations such as Chithode and Kavundampadi in Erode district; Pillikalpalayam in Namakkal; Dharapuram in Tirupur and Dindugul in Madurai district, the Salem jaggery is the most preferred one by traders for its quality, unique taste, aroma and sweetness.
Jaggery production has almost doubled from 1,500 sippams per day to almost 3,000 sippams expecting higher demand for Pongal.
Apart from jaggery manufacturing units, Salem has 60 crusher units to extract sugarcane juice for making jaggery.
RL Kennedy, president, Salem Town Jaggery Merchants Association said that jaggery made in Salem has been exported to Canada, America, Australia, Sri Lanka, Singapore and Malaysia, where Tamils live in large numbers.
“Export of jaggery picks up mainly during the pongal season. And throughout the year, jaggery is manufactured for domestic consumption,” he said. .
“Untill a few years ago, upto 350 tonnes of jaggery was made in Salem district. But now, production has almost halved by 150 tonnes . Unseasonal rains resulting in shortage of water for the rain fed crop affected cane production. This year, seasonal rains failed and the cyclonic rain did not help in the cultivation of sugarcane,” he added.
There may be shortfalls and setbacks, but jaggery manufacturers say that their numbers have only grown by the years due to increasing demand for ‘naattu sakkarai’ (cane sugar) and jaggery due to their medicinal value.
To further boost its usage among public, jaggery producers have urged the State government to give jaggery in ration shops.
“It could be a healthier alternative to white sugar given in PDS shops. Besides the sugar supplied in ration shops across Tamil Nadu were mainly procured from Karnataka. Instead, if jaggery is given, our farmers may benefit immensely,” say farmers.
The jaggery manufacturers have also take up this issue with Chief Minister Edappadi K Palaniswami to provide jaggery in PDS shops.
Adulteration in jaggery raises concern
Rampant adulteration in jaggery by manufacturers has become a growing concern among buyers.
The seizure of a whopping 41 tonnes of adulterated jaggery by food safety officials from the wholesale auction market in Salem in the end week of November shows the alacrity of the issue.
Even a few days ago, the department seized a few tonnes of adulterated jaggery stocked for sales.
R Kathiravan, Designated Food Safety Officer, Tamil Nadu Food Safety and Drug Administration Department, Salem district said that adulteration of jaggery continues despite the manufacturers being aware of the harmful effects of the chemicals used in them.