Humble beginnings

Ranga Swamy holds a picture of himself and his wife Chandra Wati. Picture: BALJEET SINGH

LARGELY considered the administration capital of the West, Lautoka is often seen as the industrial hub of the division.

One thing that hasn’t changed over the years is the city’s dependence on sugar, a fact which has remained true since the Australian-headquartered Colonial Sugar Refinery (CSR) Company opened the Lautoka Mill in 1903.

Today, majority of residents of Indian descent owe their roots in the city to their forefathers who first settled in Lautoka to work in farms and at the mill.

Among those residents is Ranga Swamy, a retired driver and contract worker whose father arrived in Fiji under the indenture system in 1912.

Muttu, listed as a cultivator under the scheme, made his way to Fiji from Madras (now Chennai), India, and proceeded to find work as a gardener in Suva. Mr Swamy says the family did not stay in one place, instead setting up their home in places like Lovu, Simla and Rifle Range because of their father’s work.

He says both sets of his parents are from Madras, the only difference was that his mother was born in Fiji. “My nani (grandmother) was pregnant with my mother when she came to Fiji,” Mr Swamy says.

“From my first recollection, we stayed in Simla, the place near the (Lautoka) hospital mortuary where the Sugar Avenue junction is. When we went there for the first time, there were only a few households, about only six or seven houses and there were a lot of guava trees around the area.

“I used to go to Methodist Mission Boys School Lautoka and then my father bought cane land in Lovu and we sold the land in Simla and he started working in the Lovu sugar sector.

“I attended Lovu Sangam School and at that time, only three of us were born so we had a 10 acre farm at Lovu Seaside.”

Following a few years farming, Muttu returned to Lautoka City where he settled alongside other labourers at the mill. This is where the present South Pacific Distillery stands.

He pointed out that many labourers of Indian descent were housed near the mill. Solomon workers were based at Navutu while native Fijians lived where Top Line and Natokowaqa is today.

Mr Swamy said his father used to work as an engine operator and he was trained as a tractor driver too.

“We stayed there for almost 17 years. We stayed near where the distillery is today. My father was working at the mill and later bought a piece of land in Rifle Range because my brothers and sisters were growing up.

“We settled near Musuniwai and Sukanaivalu, land which is now under Housing Authority. We used to plant rice there, I think this was around the 1970s.

“The time we moved to Rifle Range, there were only eight houses. The number slowly grew to 16 and there were a lot more labourers living there.”

Despite the enormous impact the sugar industry played in his life, Mr Swamy said he himself did not engage in farming. Educated up to class eight, Mr Swamy started working as a delivery boy at Burns Philp (South Sea) Company Ltd, one of the early trading companies set up in Lautoka.

It was at this stage he also began playing soccer and represented the country between 1955 and 1962. Looking back, Mr Swamy says major developments began occurring in Lautoka around the 1950s.

“I remember they used to set up the market near the Land Transport Authority (LTA) office. The long stretch near Nadovu, that’s where people came to sell their vegetables or rice.

“There were no cement buildings, only wooden buildings. Construction of a lot of buildings began around the 1950s. There were two major companies, Narayan Construction and Reddy Construction and hundreds of people worked for these two companies.

“Burns Philp (South Seas) Ltd and Morris Hedstrom Ltd were also two big companies in town that time. In Veitari, we had shops like Punjas and CM Patel.

“There have been a lot of changes, there was so many trees and greenery and when I look at the changes now, I can’t help but think about what things were like before.”

Despite the massive changes, there are some things the Sugar City has not lost.

It’s disposition towards cane farming for one.

Still home to the largest mill in the country, the industry is close to the hearts of thousands of residents whose ancestors helped shape the city into what it is today.

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