During a July 2022 visit to a Fiji resort on its Coral Coast, I observed the tough life for many Fijians along with various tensions between indigenous and ethnic Indian Fijians over economic and cultural issues.
These tensions have been evident since Fiji gained independence in 1970 when the new constitution designated 22 seats each for Indigenous Fijians and Indo‐Fijians with everyone voting for the remaining seats, a situation that led to a military coup after the election of a multi-ethnic Fiji Labour-National Federation Party coalition in 1987 ended indigenous rule.
After Fiji became a British colony in 1874, over 60,000 Indians arrived in Fiji by 1916 as agricultural workers as part of indentured emigration through contracts which required them to work for five years.
While they were free to return to India after 5 years at their own expense, many stayed for a number of reasons: government encouragement to help Fiji’s sugar industry, new kinship ties, and enhanced economic and social opportunity through farming.
Although indentured emigration ended in 1916, the British established a number of policies that were intended to appease indigenous concerns but ultimately helped fuel the economic and cultural division evident today.
This included a law that gave 83 per cent of the total land to indigenous Fijians, although indigenous lands could be leased to other groups.
The creation of the Great Council of Chiefs to meet annually to advise the governor on native Fijian affairs and to assist him in formulating native regulations, albeit indigenous Fijians were encouraged to stay in the villages and grow subsistence crops to maintain traditional life.
Indigenous Fijians, increasingly adhering to Christianity, benefited from many schools established by 1900 while the Indians suffered most from the segregated education system which lasted for around four decades.
From the 1940s, while Indian farmers eventually surpassed the Europeans in the amount and value of cane they produced, they were unable to purchase the land they leased from indigenous Fijians.
With the Indian community beginning to educate themselves by establishing schools without the help of the government for the most part, this led them to fill the junior ranks of civil service while many also entered the workforce as lawyers, doctors, nurses, and accountants.
While the 1987 coup led many ethnic Indians (mainly professionals and skilled production workers) to flee Fiji to Australia, New Zealand, and Canada, thus ending their status as the largest ethnic group by population, Fijians of Indian ethnicity have remained crucial to the development of the Fijian economy.
However, by 2010, with growing disparity of income seeing the emergence of squatter settlements in Suva (around 100,000 people) that included many Indo-Fijians who were forced to move after agricultural licenses were not renewed from the 1990s onwards, it was estimated that Fiji had around 42 per cent of its people living on or below the poverty line at a time when indigenous Fijians and ethnic Indians made up 57.3 per cent and 37.6 per cent of the 860,000 total population.
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