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Contribution of Indians to Fiji's growth, development

Fiji has a multiracial population of 800,000 comprising 42% per cent Indians who have made their mark, in more than one way, in this island country.
PTI | By Sunil Kumar
PUBLISHED ON JAN 07, 2005 04:20 PM IST

Fiji is a small island state in the middle of the Pacific. It has a multiracial population of 800,000 comprising of 42% per cent Indians, 51% native Fijians and 7% mixed races. The Indians in Fiji are the third and fourth generation descendants of the British crown colony. Sir Arthur Gordon, the governor of Fiji in 1879, had sanctioned the first arrival of indentured labourers from India. He was given the task to govern Fiji within its means, which compelled him to recruit productive labour from India.

The British steamer, Leonidas, brought the first 'cargo' of 464 Indians from India into Fiji on 15th May, 1879. This passage of indentured labourers from India continued until 1916 when it was brought to an end after Mahatma Gandhi intervened and requested the British to abolish it.

Fiji has a total land area of 18,376 sq. km, which includes more than 320 small islands. The main economic activities, however, are concentrated on two major Islands namely, Viti Levu - the largest - and Vanua Levu, the second largest. There are three other much smaller islands that have sizeable economies. The economy is of mixed nature, with a strong agricultural base. This aspect of the Fijian economy has much to do with the arrival of the indentured Indians in Fiji.

The agricultural base of the country has been developed over the last century by the contribution of the migrant Indian population, who are known for their skills in agriculture. By the time the indenture system ended, a total of more than 60,000 labourers were already in Fiji toiling the sugarcane estates of the Colonial Sugar Refinery (CSR), an Australian sugar refinery company. The last batch of these labourers served the indenture until 1920.

Those who finished serving the indenture became free and were given the chance to stay in Fiji as British subjects or travel back to India at the expense of the colonial government. Most of them opted to stay back in Fiji and made Fiji their home. They opted to stay in Fiji for various reasons but one important reason was that they were not able to save enough money to take home as they had planned when they left India.

Saving money was not possible since the remuneration for the work done by them was very small and only enough for survival. The period of arrival of the Indians in Fiji was a new beginning for the Fijian archipelago, where tribal warfare, lawlessness and conflict between the European settlers and the natives were rampant and proved to be an economic disaster for the Europeans.

The European capital assets were being wasted as a result of these conflicts and the Indian labourers were the only hope to bring prosperity to these Islands. They did exactly that. For more than 120 years now, the Indians have contributed enormously towards the economic and social development of Fiji, and generally the Pacific The indenture tenure was a nightmarish experience for those who served it. There are numerous stories of sufferings of the people.

These are similar to the experiences of Indians who went to work in the other British sugar colonies like Jamaica. Trinidad, Guyana, Surinam, Mauritius and other places in continental Africa. The 'Girmityas', as they were commonly known, had to travel weeks of tortuous journey through many seas and straits into the Pacific Ocean. Often they had to live on scant food supply and crowded rooms onboard the ships. Medical facility and sanitation were almost nonexistent.

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