Sugarcane farmers’ suicides: national rights body urged to intervene

Unscientific pricing of sugarcane, harassment by money lenders and delay in receiving payments are plaguing cultivators

By M Suchitra
Published: Tuesday 18 August 2015

Farmers’ organisations of Karnataka and other states have appealed to the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) based in New Delhi to intervene, in view of the rising number of suicides by sugarcane growers across the state.

The organisations want the NHRC to direct the Centre as well as the state government to take necessary measures to resolve the issue at the earliest.

“The situation is alarming. Every day three to four farmers commit suicide in Karnataka. The central (and) the state governments are not taking (the) required measures to curb the wave of suicides. It’s (under) this scenario that we approached the NHRC,” Kurbur Shanta Kumar, the president of the Sugarcane Growers’ Association (SGA), told Down To Earth.

According to Kumar, sugarcane cultivators are killing themselves due to several factors. The main problems are unscientific pricing of sugarcane, harassment by money lenders and delay in receiving payments.

To mount pressure on the government, sugarcane farmers have decided to throng the state assembly on August 25. On its part, the government has announced that an all-party delegation will be sent to New Delhi to meet Prime Minister Narendra Modi to resolve the issue.

Growing concern

In a letter sent to the NHRC on August 11, SGA pointed out that more than 200 sugarcane farmers have committed suicide in Karnataka in just two months, starting June this year.

Sugarcane is a commercial crop and requires huge investments on the part of farmers. The produce is mainly purchased by sugar factories. The central government fixes the price of sugarcane. “But the sugar prices are actually decided by market forces,” Kumar said.

The petition sent to the NHRC states that 30 million farmers and 10 million labourers are engaged in the sugarcane sector in India.

Over Rs 90,000 crore has been invested by banks, other financial institutions and individuals in this sector. But even after such a huge investment, farmers have been reeling under debt for not receiving payments from the factories in the past two years.

Surplus production, imports

India produced 27 million tonnes of sugar in 2013-14 while the requirement was 23 million tonnes. The domestic sugar market has also been flooded with cheap imported sugar, mainly from the world’s biggest exporter, Brazil, mill owners said.

Sugar prices in the global market have dipped to the lowest level in six years, along with the weakening of the currency in Brazil. All these factors have led to a fall in sugar rates in the country.

According to mill owners, surplus production over five consecutive years has led to a free fall in sugar prices. They are unable to pay the farmers as they have incurred huge losses.

The situation has been especially bad in the past two years after the rate of sugar in the open market fell from Rs 30,000 per tonne in 2013 to Rs 19,000 per tonne at present.

Payment awaited

The total pending payment by the sugar factories to the growers amounts to over Rs 16,000 crore. Farmers in Karnataka, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat and Punjab are yet to receive payments for two to three years.

In Karnataka, as on August 11, the pending payment to farmers for 2013-14 stood at Rs 574 crore and Rs 1,860 crore for 2014-15, the petition says.

On 9 December last year, the Karnataka High Court had directed the sugar factories to clear farmers’ dues. It had also asked the state government to monitor the situation.

“However, despite the court order, sugar factories have refused to pay the dues,” Kumar added. “Sugarcane farmers are on a suicide spree in all the sugarcane-producing states.”

In Karnataka, the state government had promised to clear the 2013-14 dues by July 31, but failed to keep the promise, Kumar said.

Measures to curb suicides

In 2011, the Centre had set up a national committee to study the problems of the sugarcane sector and suggest solutions.

The Rangarajan Committee had made many crucial recommendations. One of these was the creation of a separate sugarcane fund to help farmers tide over the crisis.

“Unfortunately, (these) recommendations have never been implemented even after four years by the Centre and the (various) state governments,” the petition says.

Petitioners pointed out that farmers’ associations have always highlighted the plight of sugarcane cultivators by holding protests. However, the Centre and the state government have been caught napping.

Petitioners have requested the NHRC to visit states such as Karnataka where the number of suicides by sugarcane farmers is going up by the day.

They have also urged the rights commission to lay down suggestions, besides directing the Centre and the states to take action to prevent further suicides.

Besides Kumar, a host of farmer leaders such as Raghunath R Patil from Maharashtra, R V Giri from Tamil Nadu and Satnam Singh from Punjab have signed the petition.

In the wake of the rising number of suicides, farmers’ outfits in Karnataka observed the Independence Day on August 15 as the Black Day, condemning the anti-farmer policies of the Centre and the state government.

They also demanded the waiver off Rs 9,850 crore bank loan to be repaid by farmers.

In the wake of these protests, Chief Minister Siddaramiah and Minister for Cooperation H S Mahadeva Prasad had assured the growers that the government would seize unsold sugar stocks from the factories and sell them in the open market to pay the dues.

On June 24, the government seized sugar stocks at a few private mills and sold them in the open market to repay a portion of the 2013-14 dues. 

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