Origin and Development of the Sugar Industry in Aska of Odisha: Watch

The city of Aska in present-day Ganjam district of Odisha has also been known as the city of sugar since the very first sugar mill in Asia originated here in the 19th century. Fredrick Joseph Vivian Minchin is known as the father of the sugar industry who bears the credit of successfully running the sugar factory with the latest modern technology then available in British times in India.

Instead of being home to Asia’s very first sugar factory, Odisha enjoys a special identity. Interestingly, despite several ups and downs, the same thing continues to work where large numbers of people are employed. And during its course of several hundred years, the plant has gone through many incidents that are worth remembering.

In the middle of the 19th century, Aska was once famous for growing sugar. Then, after completing her education in England, Vivian Minchin joined the British Army and came to India at the age of 18. Major Vivian Minchin retained a great interest in agricultural industrialization. He chose to live in Aska.

Asia’s first jaggery mill at Aska suffered huge losses due to some bottlenecks. As a result, Vivian Minchin then bought the said factory and, with the new sugar technology obtained from Germany, designed and rebuilt the factory. Thanks to his competent management ability and modern know-how, he managed the factory successfully.

According to reports, the sugar produced in this factory ranked first in an international sugar exhibition held in Paris in 1878. As a result, Major Minchin was considered the father of the sugar industry in Asia. He was affectionately known as Minchin Sahib in the Aska region.

Despite his foreign background, Minchin Sahib decided to stay in then Odisha after the establishment of the sugar factory. Later, he got married with a local woman from Odia named Sona (also called Suna). As a result, now another name ‘Sona Sahebani’ has attached itself to the name Minchin Sahib.

The couple built their own bungalow in the old Aska where Harihar High School is located today.

In addition to sugar, rectified spirit was also produced in the factory which was prepared from molasses, the organic by-product of the sugar unit.

The products were exported to foreign countries through the nearby port of Gopalpur. In this way, the local sugarcane growers benefited from the establishment of the factory and earned handsome incomes while the cultivation of sugarcane flourished in the region.

The sugar industry has created meeting opportunities for a large number of inhabitants. During this time, road communication developed from Aska to Gopalpur while bridges were built across Rushikulya River and Ghodahada River from Hinjili. Gradually, the inhabitants developed socially and economically with the development of agriculture and industry in this region.

Besides business, Minchin Sahib and Sona Sahebani also organized social work to help people. They also helped small industries to develop.

Minchin Sahib breathed his last in 1908 during his stay in Gapalpur. Responsibility for the sugar factory now rests on the shoulder of Sona Sahebani, his wife.

After running for a few years, Sona Sahebani sold the factory to Paramananda Sahu, an entrepreneur from Berhampur. Later, Sona Sahebani passed away in 1916. After their passing away, samadhi of Sona Sahebani was done near the burial place of Minchin Sahib in the premises. At this place, a bronze statue of Minchin Sahib and a statue of Sona Sahebani who looked like a fairy were erected.

On the other hand, after the factory was sold, it worked well for a few years but later fell ill. The struggling factory had to be closed because it had become obsolete, unprofitable and could not compete with modern technologies.

After long years, efforts were made to realize the dream of Minchin Sahib who had conceptualized the sugar industry. Some experts, intellectuals and leaders of the cooperative have mobilized to relaunch the factory.

As a result, in 1960, Chief Minister of Odisha Harekrushna Mahatab laid the foundation for the Nuagan of Aska factory. Later, in 1963, former Odisha CM Biju Pattnaik inaugurated the new sugar factory. After 10 days of inauguration, production started from the factory.

Along with the production of sugar, a bottling plant was established in the factory. Aska-40 country liqueur was produced here, prepared from molasses, the organic by-product of sugar cane. The product was supplied to Nirgundi’s depots at Cuttack, Khordha, Chandikhol and Balasore. The factory made good profits. He brought development to the region while creating huge job opportunities.

However, later the plant again encountered problems. Defects were marked in the crushing of sugar cane as well as in the production of sugar and liquor. And so the factory couldn’t work steadily. Meanwhile, labor issues have also surfaced due to the difference between workers and labor organizations. Complaints have been raised about the appointment and disengagement of workers and staff. Farmers who supplied the cane to the factory complained about non-payment. As a result, sugar cane growers and agriculture have been affected. Due to the drop in production and other problems, the factory got entangled in the debt trap.

Later, on January 12, 2012, an explosion took place in the factory around 10 p.m. on a cold night while everyone was sleeping soundly. Due to the explosion, the molasses tank exploded in the premises. Liquid molasses flowed into the nearby area when the factory wall collapsed and three people were killed as they slept.

Tension gripped the area following the blast as several protests were launched. After 8 years in March 2020 a new fault was found in the molasses tank pipe and as a result molasses hovered inside the premises. Earlier, on another occasion in February 2018, sugarcane crushing was halted for three days after a fault was observed in the plant’s boiler pipe.

Residents living near the factory premises are still terrified by the explosion of the molasses tank. On the other hand, there have been complaints that many workers who have lost their jobs lead a miserable life.

Despite all these ups and downs, the Aska sugar factory has kept its identity. Factory officials said efforts were being made to improve the situation. Today, more than 940 employees, permanent and contractual, work in the factory. In addition, the government allocation was sanctioned for the modernization of the sugar factory as well as the Aska-40 bottling plant. A loan of Rs. 9 crores was taken from the National Cooperative Development Corporation (NCDC) for the development of the plant. As a result, there is now a loan burden of Rs 29.09 crore on the factory, according to a report. However, efforts are still being made for the repayment of the loan as well as the overall development of the factory, the factory secretary said.

On the other hand, some people have also been accused of spreading a negative campaign which has been an obstacle to the development of the factory. However, every possible effort is being made by the government for the growth of the plant.

Sucrerie d’Aska, which has carved out a place for itself in Asia, has had its ups and downs. It is hoped that the factory will soon return to its former glory.

With contributions from Ratnakar Sahu, Bhanjanagar

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Rachel J. Bradford