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Fiji wants India's help to revive sugar industry

DECCAN CHRONICLE | S. Umamaheshwar

Published on: February 22, 2023 | Updated on: February 23, 2023

Sugarcane Growers' Council CEO Vimal Dutt, Fiji's sugar industry minister Charan Jeath Singh, Fiji Sugar Corporation CEO Bhan Pratap Singh and Iiai, Second Secretary Fiji High Commission, New Delhi

Hyderabad: In history, there would, perhaps, be few events that change the course of nations and alter people’s behaviour. The Covid pandemic, unmistakably, falls under this classification. It forced several countries to reinvent themselves to emerge better. Fiji, an archipelago of 300 islands in the South Pacific Ocean, is one of many countries that has taken lessons from the pandemic and tries to devise an economic course correction to give better lives to its people.

Traditionally, the sugar industry was the top foreign exchange earner for Fiji. However, due to decline in the sugar industry caused by archaic machinery and shortage of labour, the tourism sector became the number one industry. But when the Covid pandemic struck the world, the earnings from tourism came to nil. But the sugar industry continued to be resilient. So we learnt our lesson from Covid and decided to rejuvenate or bring back the sugar industry to the normal level, said Fiji’s sugar industry minister Charan Jeath Singh in an interview with Deccan Chronicle.

"The difference between tourism and sugar is this: Tourism will create only employment. The money earned by hoteliers will be taken back overseas. But in the sugar industry, the money comes all into Fiji. It goes to labourer, cane cutter, farmer, lorry driver, and so forth up to the miller," said the Fiji minister, who is in Hyderabad to the 31st Congress of the International Society of Sugar Cane Technologists (ISSCT).

He said the ISSCT is an international conference, which is attended by people from across the world have come and would allow them to understand how to modernize Fiji’s sugar industry. Though the South Pacific nation had four sugar mills, one got damaged by a cyclone, leaving it with three operational sugar plants, which are over 100 years old.  "The idea is to come here to this conference and meet the relevant stakeholders and suppliers of machines and equipment that can perhaps rebuild the fourth mill, which the government promised rebuild during the recent elections, the minister said.

The minister, however, said Fiji wants to devise the most modern technology for the new plant and wants to opt for vertical integration of sugar production by setting up cogeneration plant to produce power and distillery to produce ethanol. "So our whole idea is if we are going to set up this new plant, it should have all these three."

The minister, who visited sugarcane farms and sugar mills in Telangana, said his country to understand best practices followed by sugar cane farmers in India and improve the productivity in his country. "In Fiji, the production of cane is around 47 tonnes per hectare. But in the normal practice, we should be around 85 tonnes hectare.,, In good times, we used to crush 4.3 million tonnes of cane. But due to variety of issues, the production dropped to 3.2 million tonnes. Thereafter, it fell down 1.3 million tonnes. However in the last two years, we managed to increase the production to 1.6 million tonnes."

As the sugar industry supports 200,000 people — directly or indirectly — in a country of 900,000, the minister said the revival of the sugar industry assumes critical importance.

"Sugarcane growers’ council and sugar mills body are working hard to promote and get more farmers back in farm. Our target is to increase the production by 200,000 tonnes every year until we achieve our target of three million tonnes. But the biggest hurdle is the shortage of labour. As farmers’ children get educated, they are moving into white collar jobs. So they don’t want work on farms. That’s why, we want to look at the way India is able to continue its large scale production," the minister said.

The minister also said that Fiji could be open to hiring labour from other countries, including India, or leasing land in Fiji for sugar cane farming to address the shortage of workers in his country. "We also looking at the possibilities of bring people from overseas, probably India, to work in Fiji… Even for that matter, if they want to come and lease the land in Fiji for planting sugarcane, it could also be an option. If there are genuine people who want to come and lease the land, I am sure why not," he said.

When asked about the issues discussed during his recent meeting Indian external affairs minister S. Jaishankar, the Fiji minister said his country
sought Indian assistance in reviving its aging railway line, which is used mostly for transporting sugarcane from farms, medical scholarships, medical assistance and education.

Fiji, he said, is also looking for the Indian assistance for building the new modern sugar mill and expects write off of an existing loan extended to Fiji through EXIM Bank about 20 years back. "Some 20 years back, we had received $50 million from Indian government through the Exim Bank of India. Unfortunately, that money was supposed to be used to buy machinery from the Indian suppliers. But that loan was not properly used because of middlemen, who go us equipment that had second grade materials."