Sugar News Details

Dues mount, but farmers still loyal to sugarcane


KOLHAPUR/ MEERUT: Unrest simmers in districts of western Maharashtra and parts of Uttar Pradesh, considered the sugar bowls of the country, over unpaid cane crushing dues. Despite the problems which beset farmers, however, they have continued to cultivate a crop that means more to them than just livelihood.
Anger among farmers in Satara, Sangli and Kolhapur districts of Maharashtra over unpaid dues spilled out into the streets on January 12. A group of unidentified persons gathered outside Kranti Sugar Factory in Sangli district and Krishna Sugar Factory near Karad in Satara district and set the office gates on fire. Four other factories were ransacked and forcibly shut down. The matter of unpaid dues remains a simmering issue in the runup to Lok Sabha and state assembly issues this year.
Farmers in the western part of Maharashtra have cultivated sugarcane for decades thanks to the fertile land, ample water and most importantly assured money. The government announces a fair and remunerative price (FRP) every year that sugar mills must pay farmers after purchasing cane from them. The mills have, however, struggled to pay farmers for the past many years. This crushing season alone, since October 2018, mills owed Rs 4,576 crore to farmers till December 9.
The violence occurred hours after farmers came to know that most private and cooperative sugar factories had unilaterally deposited 80% of the payment in their bank accounts. Rs 2,300 per tonne was deposited in the bank accounts of farmers while FRP is Rs 2,800 per tonne.
It is mandatory for factories to make full payment to the farmers within 14 days after cane is taken for crushing. However, this partial payment was made after three months and a warning from the sugar commissionerate.
Pradip Godase, farmer from Walva taluka of Sangli district, said, “It is true that we have to fight for FRP every year, but sugarcane is the only crop that gives us assured returns. We do not suffer losses after cultivating sugarcane. Besides, sugar cultivation also provides fodder and cattle-rearing becomes our second occupation.”
Sandip Mote, who has cane farms in Tandulwadi village of Kolhapur, said, “We also spend less on pesticides and fertilisers on its cultivation as compared to other crops. Sugarcane crop can also survive flooding, waterlogging or dry climate for a month.”
This loyalty to the crop, despite the ongoing crisis, can also be seen in Uttar Pradesh. A staggering Rs 8,200 crore in cumulative dues was to be paid by mills to farmers in the state by the end of 2018. A glut in sugar production this year has meant prices dropping below the break-even mark for mill owners. One would assume that with farmers’ payments getting stuck — something which they have been facing almost every year — they would switch to cultivating another crop.
There is no chance of that happening anytime soon. For farmers, especially those in western UP districts of Baghpat, Bijnor, Muzzafarnagar, Shamli, Bulandshahr and Meerut, being identified as a cane cultivator is a matter of pride that cannot be compromised. “A cane farmer has more respect than someone who grows vegetables, which needs less land but greater amount of manual labour,” says Bijnor farmer Virender Singh.
In September 2018, UP CM Yogi Adityanath while addressing farmers in Baghpat had advised them to “grow other crops as too much sugar leads to diabetes”. It’s an advice that farmers in the area take with a pinch of salt. “Sugarcane is the crop of our forefathers and we are carrying forward the legacy. Why would we grow anything else?” said Virender indignantly.
It is this persistence that has seen the area under cane cultivation in the state increase despite the problem of unpaid dues, from 22.9 lakh hectare in 2017 to 26.7 lakh hectare in 2018.
Ashok Kumar, director (research) at Meerut’s Sardar Vallabh Bhai Patel Agriculture University said, “Pride about cane cultivation is particularly visible among those with large land holdings, who can absorb delays in payment. Many farmers are confident they will get paid sooner or later.”
There are other reasons for the continued popularity of sugarcane farming. A robust infrastructure is in place in UP — sugar mills are conveniently located, collection centres are present in each village and there is a minimum price guaranteed. “Besides, the crop needs very little maintenance, is robust and can survive inclement weather. In worst-case scenarios, the loss is never more than 10%. If I were to cultivate wheat, there might be a 30% to 40% loss sometimes,” said Naveen Pradhan, a Meerut farmer.
Because of the huge vote bank that UP’s 45 lakh sugarcane farmers represent, the crop is intertwined with state politics. The state advised price, which is the minimum sugar mills have to give to farmers, is often increased marginally by the state government during an election year to give the ruling party an edge, as was done by the BJP government in 2018. The issue of pending dues is also raised by the opposition to embarrass the party in power. This was one of the reasons attributed to the defeat of BJP in the Kairana Lok Sabha bypoll in May 2018 (which included the assembly constituency of the state cane minister). With barely a few months for the 2019 general elections and the issue of farmers’ dues still simmering, sugarcane could yet again occupy centrestage in the UP political arena.