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Always a man who fought for the sugar cane farmers

Sunday, October 14, 2007

The name Kallu Dhani Ram might not be as synonymous as those of other sugar industry leaders like the late Siddiq Koya, A D Patel or Pundit Ajodhya Prasad but it is one that carries great weight and respect.

Mr Ram has had a hand in the creation of most industry legislations such as the Sugar Master Award and organisations like the Sugar Cane Growers Council that now govern TRNi's industry.

And now at 84 y ears, Mr Ram is the longest serving and oldest general secretary of any farmers' representative organisation in the country.

Mr Ram has been general secretary of the TRNi Kisan Sangh since 1979. He is only the third general secretary of the oldest farmers' representative organisation in TRNi.

Mr Ram's desire and inspiration to fight for the rights of farmers began in 1939 when he first came in contact with the founder and first general secretary of FKS, the late Pundit Ajodhya Prasad.

It was during one of Pundit Prasad's pocket meetings that Mr Ram attended as a 16-year-old where he was inspired to fight for the rights of farmers.

"I can remember him calling on farmers not to be afraid to join TRNi Kisan Sangh because it was there to fight for their rights and make sure they were treated well.

"This was two years after Pundit Prasad had created the Sangh but that time no one was allowed to attend these meetings," he said.

"Any one caught attending these meetings would be given seven days notice by CSR to vacate their farms and there was nothing much we could do," he said.

"That day some of us friends were sitting together when they started talking about this Pundit going around asking people in the communities to join FKS. We decided to attend.

"During the meeting, I remember Pundit Prasad saying that a European lawyer, Douglas Chalmers advised him that it was well within our rights to meet and talk about our problems. But people were still afraid.

"Those times the Europeans were very strict. Some of them used to ride to communities on their horses early in the morning and whip the men who were still in their homes and not on the farms."

Mr Ram said even though Pundit Prasad's words made an impact; he did not realise the importance until he returned to farming in 1954.

He said even though the indentured system was finished, Indian farmers were still being victimised by the CSR, so he decided to make a stand.

Every day after working on his father's farm, he would visit farmers in the area and talk about the problems they were facing.

He said "the times were rough" and people wanted some way of escaping the torture they were subjected to under CSR.

Mr Ram's continued efforts to ease the suffering of farmers eventually became recognised by FKS and the late Pundit Prasad himself.

"In 1960, I was still not a member of FKS but the Sangh and Pundit Prasad made an arrangement with CSR for a 64-acre property in Drasa for my work with the farmers.

"After receiving the land, I became a member of FKS and continued working with farmers on improving conditions that we were facing," said Mr Ram.

Mr Ram said when he first attended Pundit Prasad's meeting as a teenager, he never imagined he would be working closely with him then eventually holding the post of general secretary.

And while Mr Ram has announced that this will be his last year as the general secretary of FKS, he hopes the platform he has laid, along with his mentors, will be a launch pad for farmers' representatives in years to come.

Mr Ram, who has worked with leaders like the late Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara, Sir Vijay Singh, Pundit Ajodhya Prasad, Pundit Ami Chand, Vidya Lakhan and Siddiq Koya, hopes his work will serve as a platform for others wanting to fight for the rights of farmers.

Inspired by the words - If God had intended man to go backwards, he would have given him eyes on the back of his head Mr Ram says there is nothing impossible for man.

Mr Ram said most of the problems experienced by farmers in the industry nowadays were being created by politicians and only dialogue and common sense would be able to move the industry forward.


It was not until the age of 15 that Kallu Dhani Ram first attended an educational institution.

Before that Mr Ram and fellow youths of Vunisamaloa, in Ba, used to gather at a shack in the settlement and undergo two hours of tutorials from a local teacher every evening.

But like a few others, Mr Ram was determined to further his knowledge in English so that he would be able to understand the Europeans who dominated the sugar industry at that time.

Mr Ram was born into a family of seven on July 6, 1923. His parents Kallu of Belapratapgadh and Ragnathi of Jawanpur in India were among the last load of indentured labourers who arrived in 1916.

Given very few options apart from working in the sugar cane fields, the qualities of hard work, commitment and dedication to the improvement of living standards among farmers was instilled at a very young age.

This was fuelled by his personal experiences of the difficulties and hardships that his parents had faced in trying to support their large family while bearing the harsh conditions they were subjected to under the Colonial Sugar Refinery Company.

In the 1930s, there were several schools established in Ba with the majority only teaching English and Tamil.

For Mr Ram, who could not understand either of the languages the prospect of attending an educational institution looked very bleak.

Determined to overcome this barrier, Mr Ram began attending these evening tutorials by Mr Ramesh after a hard day's work.

"We used to have these classes in the settlement every night for two to three hours. Not many of us attended but we were very keen about learning English.

"Then a European priest, Reverend William Checksfield, started visiting us to teach English," he said.

"Reverend Checksfield used to ride his motorcycle and visit all settlements, teaching the children and anyone else who wanted to learn English.

"Everybody looked forward to his visits not only to learn English but to catch a glimpse of him on his motorcycle," said Mr Ram.

Mr Ram underwent these classes for two years before he was sent to Koronubu Bhartiya Parshala School in 1938.

Because of his lack of formal education and age Mr Ram started off primary education at Class Three level.

While Mr Ram enjoyed attending school, he spent only three years before returning to the fields in 1941.

"When the indentured labour system ended, my father was given a block of land that was 36 acres to farm and live on so when I left school, I went back to help my father," he said.

On July 24, 1944, just weeks after his 21st birthday, Mr Ram got married to Shiv Dulari, of Drasa, in Lautoka.

"My father went and spoke to my wife's family in Drasa and got everything arranged so we got married."

"I kept working for my father until I met the late Pundit Ami Chand, who suggested that I move away from farming," said Mr Ram.

Taking heed of Pundit Chand's advice, Mr Ram decided to pursue a career in tailoring.

Mr Ram managed to secure employment with a tailoring firm in Ba town.

Every morning, Mr Ram used to walk for more than five miles to work in Ba Town before returning on foot in the evenings.

He continued with the routine for about a year before he decided to open up his own shop.

Over the next year, Mr Ram went through a tailoring course at a local shop to learn the finer details of the trade.

In 1949, Mr Ram realised his dream when he opened up his own tailoring shop in the heart of Ba town.

Thrilled with his new-found passion, Mr Ram became enthralled in fashion.

"I started sewing everything from shirts to dresses and skirts.

"That time the bell-bottom pants were very popular and I really like to be in these clothes," he said.

"At first it started all right then business did not really pick up. Business continued to be very slow and eventually I was forced to sell in 1954. It was a hard decision to make but I knew it was necessary," he said.

After selling his shop, the father of seven returned to farming and still remains a farmer, harvesting 350 tonnes of cane annually after his 64 acre farm was shared among his children.


Ever since he was a young man working on the farm, Mr Ram has always been very conscious of his health and the food he eats.

Over the past six decades, Mr Ram has maintained an exercise schedule he follows on a daily basis.

While age has limited some of his abilities, Mr Ram still carries out the exercises with the same level of enthusiasm he had during his younger days.

His daily schedule begins at 4am with a stretching exercise to get him ready for the day. "After my stretching exercises, I drink four glasses of warm water because I treat my body like an engine. It has to be warmed up for the day," he said.

"Apart from my vision where I have to wear glasses, I do not have other diseases like high blood pressure, sugar diabetes or heart problems."

"I think my exercises and diet has helped me a lot. I still drive my vehicle to work and walk around whenever I have to do some work in the city."

"The death of my wife in 1996 really had a huge impact on my life because I had to fend for myself. I do my own housework and cooking. But sometimes, my son, who lives with me on the farm, provides food but most of the time, I do everything myself," said Mr Ram.

Mr Ram said even though he enjoyed having a social drink, he never allowed it to control him.

Mr Ram said everyone had the capability of living a long, healthy and fruitful life but it all depended on the different choices they made.

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