The bitter truth of Karnataka's jaggery

The bitter truth of Karnataka's jaggery

Jaggery, known for its taste and seen as a healthier alternative to sugar, continues to be tainted by rampant adulteration in the state

A recent move by traders in Gujarat against buying jaggery manufactured in Karnataka’s Mandya district has cast a shadow over the decades-old jaggery business here.

Gujarat and Rajasthan are some of the biggest buyers of Karnataka's jaggery, as it is an ingredient in most dishes. After the Gujarati traders, their counterparts from Rajasthan, Assam, and Madhya Pradesh have also been mulling a similar move.

The development has exposed the widespread practice of jaggery adulteration in Mandya, the biggest producer of jaggery in the state. Belagavi and Bagalkot, two other regions that produce jaggery in bulk, are also witnessing rampant use of chemicals in jaggery production. 

Read | Reasons aplenty for adulteration in jaggery 

Recently, raids on jaggery units in Hosapete in Vijayanagar district had also exposed how manufacturers were producing jaggery with sugar as a major ingredient, to expedite the process and make a quick buck. 

Karnataka is one of the biggest producers of jaggery in the country, after Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra. In the 2000s, Mandya district alone had close to 5,700 jaggery making units. Today, less than 600 of these units are still active, producing close to 10 lakh tonnes of jaggery every year.

Now, the growing adulteration of jaggery using industrial-grade chemicals and synthetic colours beyond permissible levels poses a challenge to the state government's plans to revive cottage industries under the ‘One District, One Product’ scheme. The jaggery produced in Belagavi and Mandya has been selected under the scheme.

What is startling is that jaggery unit owners in the state openly admit to using chemicals while preparing the product, in order to cater to the market’s demands.

Sugarcane growers say they are compelled to use chemicals as APMC traders demand white jaggery citing the demand.

“A truckload of white jaggery is auctioned and sells like hot cakes within a few minutes of its arrival while traditional jaggery, whose colour ranges from dark grey to golden yellow, is often kept waiting for prospective buyers,” says S Venkatesh, a second-generation proprietor of a jaggery unit in Mandya Rural town.

Traders say they are forced to cater to the demand of consumers, who are increasingly obsessed with white jaggery, as opposed to the traditional product which has a darker colour.

Sukhi, a third-generation jaggery producer, says, “We don’t even use a gram of jaggery that we produce because it has 'poison' in it. For household use, I procure chemical-free jaggery.”

Read | Jaggery, a healthy alternative to sugar? 

Several other owners who take part in the jaggery auction everyday voice similar concerns.

Though the issue of adulterated jaggery has gained attention with the boycott by Gujarat traders, this practice has been prevalent inside the aromatic kitchens of jaggery units for a while now.

In fact, an evaluation of the quality of Mandya’s jaggery, carried out by the Karnataka Evaluation Authority in 2017 had revealed widespread usage of industrial bleaching agents, additives and acids along with seashells, wood powder and other materials. 

“The jaggery units in Mandya region particularly have been using calcium hydroxide, sodium hydrosulphite (hydrose), sodium formaldehyde sulfoxylate (Safolite), phosphoric acid, industrial quality baking soda and synthetic colours,” the report revealed. 

Except for calcium (solution of lime), none of these chemicals are allowed to be used as per the rules.

But a visit to several jaggery units in Mandya, Maddur, Pandavapura and Srirangapatna and conversations with sugarcane growers and traders revealed that the practice of adulteration continues unabated.

Jaggery unit owners say it is hard to process the jaggery without using some of these chemicals, which are not harmful when used within permissible limits.

“But many jaggery unit owners often exceed the prescribed limits which pose a problem,” says Mohan, who runs a chemical shop in Chamarajanagar district that sells chemicals used in the jaggery making process.

Chemicals like sodium bicarbonate and magnafloc LT27 are used as a flocculant to clarify the cane juice and remove dust and other particulate matter. Chemicals like hydrose and safolite are used to bleach and impart hardness and colour to the product respectively.

Thimme Gowda, former president of Mandya DCC Bank and an owner of a jaggery unit, says the problem ultimately stems from the consumer.

“Do people use dark jaggery? The dishes in traditional Karnataka cuisine (Holige, Karagadubu, payasa, panaka) will lose their attraction due to the dark colour. Even during Sankranti, people refuse to use dark jaggery in the traditional sesame mixture," Gowda says.

In fact, Thimme Gowda, along with Somashankare Gowda, the President of the Mandya taluk Jaggery Units owners association, have been striving to make farmers switch to chemical-free jaggery. 

“Despite the awareness and organic movement in urban areas, not much has changed in the jaggery industry. Less than one per cent of jaggery unit owners have switched over to chemical-free jaggery production. But now, all of them are facing closures due to increased costs and reduced demand,” Thimme Gowda says.

Even the economics of making organic jaggery work against the producers. “I supply chemical-free jaggery to some units in Bengaluru. While they buy it for Rs 40 per kilogram at my unit, the same is sold for Rs 80 to Rs 120 per kilogram under the label of organic in Bengaluru. It is only the middle-men who benefit,” says Jeevan Kumar, a third-generation jaggery unit owner.

“In the end, a common person without any knowledge of the qualities of organic jaggery goes to a nearby grocery shop and buys the white jaggery for Rs 30 to Rs 40 per kilogram. This impulsive consumer behaviour and our desperation to keep the tradition alive amidst rising costs inevitably lead us to adulteration. If I do not, the other unit owner will walk away with profits,” Kumar adds.

Sadly, what is at stake is the reputation of Mandya’s jaggery, which was once known for its unique taste.

K Thimmegowda says, “Unless the state government brings in a suitable policy and strict enforcement regime, nothing will change. Only policy intervention would put an end to all these practices.”

Kempanna Gowda, another jaggery unit owner, says, “Today, there are more than 40 chemical shops in Mandya alone that sell these spurious chemicals. Why can’t the government conduct raids and down the shutters of these shops? The officials will tour the jaggery units whenever the consignment of jaggery is caught or sent back rejected and become silent thereafter. From farmers to traders, everything is interlinked and it is difficult to change the system with just one or two willing to change.”  

Get a round-up of the day's top stories in your inbox

Check out all newsletters

Get a round-up of the day's top stories in your inbox