A Google news search for “Muzaffarnagar" will generally throw up results of murders, riots, rapes and arrests. Last year’s riots are still fresh in people’s minds. But there is much more to the area.

For you’ll also come across news updates about gur (jaggery) prices in the Muzaffarnagar mandi (market). The district’s official website describes this part of Uttar Pradesh as “the sugar bowl of India".

This district, along with the neighbouring Shamli district that was part of Muzaffarnagar till recently, has 11 sugar mills and at least 3,500 small units which produce jaggery. According to estimates by local trader associations, Muzaffarnagar accounts for almost 22% of the country’s jaggery production. With an estimated strength of around 300 traders, its mandi is Asia’s biggest jaggery-trading market. On a good day, the turnover can be 2 crore.

Production is in full swing at the moment. The sugar year begins in October, and the process of making jaggery will go on till May.

Jaggery-making is a traditional business for many families in Muzaffarnagar, and some of the traders and producers have worked together for generations.

But while the trade in jaggery is organized, production is not. Most of the jaggery-producing units, or kolhus, are small, and fall under the government’s definition of cottage industry. And they tend to be affected by the daily changes in prices, which vary depending on the quality, demand and supply.

“The demand is not too high right now and prices are on the lower side but I am still making jaggery because I have to retain the labour force," says Jeetendra Pal, a jaggery maker. He produces 200 quintals of jaggery in a month.

Typically, each kohlu employs 15-25 workers for a season. Pal hires a family—a couple, their five sons, a daughter and a nephew. He cannot afford to lose them.

Mohammed Rakhmuddin, 85, has been in the business for 60 years. His son Ijaz and he produce around 10 quintals of jaggery every day. Last year was an exception: Rakhmuddin says he could not make jaggery owing to a “family problem", and the inability to find people who would work at the unit. Ijaz, known as “Mota" in the mandi, sells his produce at a premium because quality is assured. On Monday, for instance, he said he sold his produce for 1,070 per 40kg, whereas the market rate was 1,050.

The production process involves boiling sugar-cane juice in three stages to allow the water content to evaporate and get rid of impurities. The whole process takes 45 minutes to 1 hour. The concentrate is then cooled and made into the shapes—circular, rectangular or any other—demanded by traders. The pulp, or bagasse, is used as fuel to boil the juice.

Last year’s riots, which happened just ahead of the sugar year, obviously hit business. “A lot of Muslims, who constitute 85% of the producers, left this place and settled in Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra," says Arun Khandelwal, president of the Federation of Gur Traders. Even otherwise, says Khandelwal, producers have been moving to Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra over the last couple of years, since sugar cane is cheaper there and profit margins, higher. “Around 1,200 units have come up in these (MP and Maharashtra) places in the last two-three years and most of these have been set up by people who have gone from here (Muzaffarnagar)," he adds.

But Muzaffarnagar is humming with activity. Mohammed Irfan, from the nearby Tewara village, who produces around 1,800 quintals of jaggery every season, says it’s “business as usual" this year for every community.

“This is everyone’s bread and butter. What will we do and where will we go leaving all this?" asks Khandelwal.

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