By Pradeep Singh
In the second half of the nineteenth century, Cautley’s Canals were bringing the mountain torrents to the Valley tamed by check dams, sluices, weirs and canals that modulated the flow with the finesse of a conductor of a philharmonic orchestra. The sweet clear water often carrying a green twig or a leaf from the foliage of upstream banks came down to villages which were celebrating the goodness of plenty of water where earlier there was none. Thus Cautley’s canals, while increasing the land revenue for the British through extension of agriculture, also added new zest among those farmers who could foresee the potential that now their fields had become capable of. While the government charged a cess for supplying canal water, the music from the same was sweet and free.
The Doon Valley hitherto deceptively verdant with luxurious forest cover on the undulating Siwaliks and also in some swathes of wooded spaces had little water for irrigation as it flowed in gorges from which drawing water up to the fields was well nigh impossible. Hence, Cautley’s marvel opened up opportunities only dreamt of till now.
The farming community, especially the visionary and enterprising members, utilised the well regulated abundance of water to pioneer two cash yielding crops in villages like Badripur, Sewla, Majri, Dudhli and a few more. These crops were the fragrant basmati rice and sweet sugar cane. Like basmati, sugar cane too had a romance about it. The Greeks and later the Persians were enchanted by the “reed that has honey not made by bees”.
Sugar cane, in its earliest varieties, was known since Rig Vedic times and the Sanskrit term for sugar was “sharkara”, which has come down to us as “shakar”.
The province of Bengal, then known as Gaur, was the land where sugarcane was cultivated on a large scale and also where production of jaggery and sugar was first carried out. Gaur was also a good reason to call jaggery “Gur”, so well known universally. The Gangetic plain provided the ambient ecosystem for the expansion of sugar cane from Bengal towards up country.
The Doon Valley was terra incognita of historians till Guru Ram Rai raised the level of its stature and ended the splendid isolation in the late seventeenth century. Agriculture gradually changed the rural landscape of the Valley but the people of the Valley had to wait another century and more before they got their own source of jaggery and sugar.
On invitation and inducement from the Darbar of Ram Rai, certain proven agricultural communities came and settled in the Valley and bent their backs to clearing the forests and draining the marshes and leveling the land to carve out plots of land which would support crops. But, despite plenty of rain, the Valley had no dependable irrigation system. Also, the subsoil being predominantly gravel and boulders covered by shallow earth, it allowed rain water to drain and leach away quite quickly, leaving little moisture for the crops in the field. But, with the coming of Cautley’s canals, the field was metaphorically leveled for both basmati and sugarcane. And this upturn in the fortunes of the farmers happened first in Badripur, Majri, Sewla and Dudhli.
A full century was to pass before a sugar mill came up in the Valley. In 1933, the Sri Janki Sugar Mill was set up in Doiwala and that, too, on a very modest scale with a daily crushing capacity of 7500 quintals of sugar cane. Thus, for over ten decades before the sugar mill, the field was open for enterprising farmers to set up small artisanal sugar cane presses, firstly for survival since sugarcane is useless unless processed for making jaggery, sugar and other such products and, also, it was more lucrative to convert the cane crop to a finished product. Thus began the saga of sugar cane presses of the most rudimentary but surprisingly robust and efficient type operated by simple village people and powered by bullocks.
(Pradeep Singh is an Historian and author of ‘Sals of the Valley: A Memorial to Dehra Dun’)
(To be continued)