On international labour day why not use a photo of a farmer with sugarcane on a back road of Baramati district? After all, sugar is the second most valuable crop in the world, following rice. The history of sugarcane cultivation is tied to the most horrendous history of modern times: the genocide that goes by the name of slavery. When this was outlawed, there followed the mass “transportation” of agricultural labour from India to the same sugar-producing British colonies.
But this blot is recent, and the history of sugar is long. Chemically refined sugar was first made in India about the time of the Buddha. The world’s oldest sweet was probably the kheer (a sweet made by boiling rice, milk, and sugar together) that Sujata famously fed to the ascetic Siddhartha, enabling him to enter the meditative state which led to him becoming the Buddha. No story that old is without variants, and you could equally believe that Sujata’s kheer was the first meal that the newly enlightened Buddha ate. In either case, the rough coincidence of two seemingly unrelated dates makes me believe that the story actually refers to kheer sweetened with the new sweetener, sugar, rather than the older molasses. Achayya, in his magisterial survey of Indian food, says that the oldest archaeological evidence for tooth decay comes from India around this time. So, along with sugar, India perhaps gave bad teeth to the rest of the world.
And the latest turn? Sugarcane cultivation requires enormous amounts of water. Baramati district is full of dams, large and small, which converted this once-barren place into an agricultural power house, and one of the large destinations for the seasonal internal migration of labour. The wealth in this region comes from sugarcane, but the fields do not lie fallow in the hot season. On the day that I took this photo, I’d spotted many fields newly planted with millets or corn. I wonder how long it will be before a change in climate forces another change in agricultural practice.