Agitation spreads to six districts, procurement near standstill
Farmers in western Maharashtra, one of the major sugarcane growing regions in the country, are bristling with rage after their repeated requests to increase the procurement price for the crop has fallen on deaf ears. Farmers are demanding Rs 4,500 per tonne of sugarcane from sugar factories, with the first instalment being Rs 3,000 a tonne as the cultivation cost. Two farmers have lost their lives as the agitation gains momentum and turns violent.
On November 14, prominent farmers groups in the state, Shetkari Sanghatana and Amchya Shetkari Sanghatana, and India Against Corruption leaders Anna Hazare and Arvind Kejariwal announced their support to the agitation. Following this, Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan, who had earlier refused to interfere in the matter, has assured that the government will make efforts to get farmers a good price for sugarcane. He said that the state was coordinating with the Centre on the implementation of the two main recommendations of the Rangarajan Committee, which had earlier recommended total decontrol on sugar and removal of levy sugar system.
The agitation started on November 7 when farmers staged a dharna at the Karmayogi Shankarrao Patil Cooperative Sugar Factory at Indapur in Pune district, protesting its procurement of sugarcane at abysmally low prices. In June this year, the Cabinet Committee for Economic Affairs had raised the Fair Remunerative Price (FRP) for sugar to Rs 1,700 a tonne for 9.5 per cent recovery (of juice content in the cane) from the earlier Rs 1,450 for the current crushing season, beginning October 1. At this rate, the existing FRP works out to just Rs 2,150 a tonne. Over the next few days, the agitation spread to neighbouring districts of Sangli, Kolhapur, Satara, Solapur and Parbhani.
In a major set-back, on November 11, representatives of several sugar factories, including member of Parliament from Kolhapur, Sadashiv Mandlik, and several members of the state Legislative Assembly, following a meeting, announced a price of Rs 2,300 per tonne of sugarcane and declined to negotiate further.
Farmers organisation Swabhimani Shetkari Sanghatana (SSS) refused to accept the decision. Raju Shetty, SSS leader and MP from Hatkanangale, announced holding a state-wide chakka jam (stop traffic) on November 12.
But early in the morning that day, Shetty along with 150 other agitators were arrested in view of a proposed visit of chief minister to Indapur. Incensed by these developments, the chakka jam agitation turned violent and two farmers were killed. At Wasgade in Sangli district, Chandrakant Nalwade was killed in police firing, while Kundalik Kokate was killed accidentally while trying to release air from a vehicle tyre on the Pune-Solapur road near Indapur. Sources say Shetty has been shifted to Yerewada prison in Pune after he refused release on bail.
Talking to Down To Earth, Sadanand Khot of SSS, who was arrested with Shetty but later released on bail, says the agitation will continue till farmers’ demands are met. “Our agitation is just. The price we have demanded is in keeping with cultivation costs of sugarcane.” Khot quashes the claims made by sugar factory representatives that the prevailing drought situation, electricity crunch and banking issues were preventing factories from raising procurement prices.
Khot explains that last year when the price of sugar was Rs 26,000 a tonne, they were given Rs 2,050 for a tonne of sugarcane. This year the cost of sugar has risen to Rs 32,570 a tonne. The sugarcane in Sangli, Kolhapur and Solapur has a recovery rate of 12-13 per cent, which means a tonne of sugarcane yields about 120 kg of sugar, 40 litres of ethnol and 150 kg bagasse. In the rest of Maharashtra recovery rate is 11.5 per cent. Yet, they are being offered Rs 2,300 a tonne. “This is not logical,” he adds.
Khot also blames the FRP system instituted in 2009 as unjust. “FRP replaced the Statutory Minimum Price system on the recommendation of the Swaminathan Committee, but it has failed to help farmers as it uses unrealistically low estimates of cultivation costs as parameters for determining FRP.”
Criticising the government for failing to take a stance on the issue, Khot alleges that legislators from both the ruling and opposition parties are responsible for breaking down the cooperative system in sugar manufacturing. “Most of the cooperative sugar factories sold out for making losses have been bought by politicians. At present, every politician owns one or more private sugar factory. The government is basically protecting their interests against those of farmers,” Khot alleges.
“At present, we have suspended the chakka jam agitation as thousands of our farmers are in jail and hundreds injured. But we have halted harvesting and procurement, and banned politicians from entering cane-growing villages.” At this time of the year, he says, the cane crop can be left standing for about two months without significant loss in juice content. This has brought sugar factories under pressure because they have already hired labourers for the season. If they do not get the cane on time, they will incur losses.
Meanwhile, the agitation shows signs of spreading across other parts of Maharashtra. Talking to Down To Earth, Gajanan Amdabadkar, Shetkari Sanghatana activist from Washim, says that a rally will be organised on November 20 in support of the agitation in Buldhana district. “The condition of sugarcane farmers in Vidarbha is worse than that of farmers in southern and western Maharashtra. Here BJP leader Nitin Gadkari’s Purti Sugar factory is paying just Rs 1,500 a tonne,” he adds
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