All along the highways, byways and village roads, convoys of bullock carts wind their slow way to the factories, overflowing with freshly harvested sugar cane.It is a familiar sight near Kolhapur, Sangli and Satara,the Golden Triangle in the southern part of Maharashtra, so named because of its rich soil and plentiful supply of water.Even closer by to Pune, at Uruli Kanchan and other sugarcane growing areas it is a common sight. Traffic crawls to a halt quite tolerantly as the carts trundle along.There is a festive feel to this journey because nobody returns empty handed .Ribbons and bows are bought for the children and a new sari for women in the family. At least there is something to celebrate this season, as the last harvest was washed out in Maharashtra due to the heavy rains and flooding, and at the co operative factories, farmers were not receiving even the SMP ( statutory minimum price) for their cane, as stipulated by the government.
Cane prices are still manipulated by the big guns of the sugar industry who, like the oil barons in North America are known to have political connections and form a powerful lobby.Though many factories are ostensibly co-operatives they do not always function cooperatively. Farmers have had to pay 'deposits' or 'share money', under several pretexts. This money has accumulated to form massive funds, the use of which has not been made clear,and which has not been repaid nor refunded to them.There has been talk of reforming the societies but any restructuring of the cooperative schemes, under which these farmers operate, must take these funds into account.
Meanwhile the common man takes pleasure in the sight of those carts as it means fresh cane juice and cane to chew on. How often have we fantasized about pulling out one long stem of sugarcane while passing , to risk losing our front teeth while stripping off the outer skin of the cane to get to the juice beneath.
A small amount does find its way to the sugar cane crushers who find a shady spot to set up business and churn out the golden liquid.
Teenagers whirl around holding the rotating lever with manic energy, looking forward to the haul they will make from travellers when the sun is high.
While many of the crushers are now made of metal gears and pulleys, the old style wooden ones look a lot cleaner. Sometimes a bit of pineapple and lime is squeezed along with the cane and provides the piquant taste to the suprisingly light and not too sweet sugarcane juice.