Bitter reversal: Restive cane farmers force Fadnavis govt to go back to early crushing

Mills in Maharashtra normally start crushing from end-October or early-November and wind up operations by late-April/early-May.

Written by Partha Sarathi Biswas | Pune | Published:October 20, 2016 2:12 am
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Arun Magdum is a relieved man. The source of it is the Maharashtra government reversing a decision, taken on October 4, not to allow sugar mills in the state to crush any cane for the new 2016-17 season before December 1.

Had that been implemented, “it would have led to 10-15 per cent weight loss for my sugarcane,” says this six-acre farmer from Mangaon, a village in Kolhapur district’s Hatkanangale taluka.

Mills in Maharashtra normally start crushing from end-October or early-November and wind up operations by late-April/early-May. It enables farmers, then, to plant a quick crop of summer moong (green gram) or groundnut on their vacated fields, before the main kharif season. “A one-month delay in crushing rules out cultivation of moong, which, apart from giving me extra income, is also good for replenishing soil nutrients. The government’s decision would have dealt a double blow, by reducing the weight of my cane and also preventing me from taking a summer crop,” notes Magdum.

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On Wednesday, a committee — comprising Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis, minister for cooperation Subhash Deshmukh, agriculture minister Pandurang Fundkar, the sugar commissioner Vipin Sharma and representatives from the sugar industry — decided to rescind its October 4 decision. The starting date for the season has now been fixed at November 5.

The main reason offered for postponing crushing operations by a month was to increase sugar recovery by mills. With severe drought conditions till almost the middle of this year impacting plantings, the state government expects mills to crush only 445 lakh tonnes (lt) of cane in 2016-17, down from 742.94 lt and 930.41 lt in the preceding two seasons. That would translate into a sugar output of just 50.28 lt, the lowest since the 46.14 lt produced in the 2008-09 season.

“Delayed crushing would have allowed for increased sucrose concentration in the cane, resulting in higher recovery. But now, instead of an average 11.30 per cent sugar recovery, you will have a rate of 11.2-11.25 per cent. Also, the cane that is crushed would be relatively immature with lower yields. It could lead to sugar production dropping below 50 lt,” says Jaiprakash Salunkhe Dandegaonkar, vice-president, Maharashtra State Cooperative Sugar Factories’ Federation and chairman of the Purna Sahakari Sakhar Karkhana Ltd at Hingoli.

That view is also shared by S S Katake, scientist and farm in-charge of the Pune-based Vasantdada Sugar Institute. According to him, the cane crop can give 0.2-0.5 percentage points additional sugar recovery, if allowed to remain in the field for an extra month. “This year, if crushing were to start by early November, mills will have only around 400 lt of cane to crush. Average recovery, too, hovers between 8-9 per cent during October-November and rising to 10-12 per cent from December. If crushing happens in November, especially this time when there is hardly any cane, you may even end up with sugar production of 40-45 lt,” he warns.

Low sugar recovery may also hurt farmers, as the fair and average price (FRP) of cane is linked to this rate. The more the sugar recovery, the higher is the FRP payable by mills. Farmers, however, are not buying this argument. For them, the weight loss in cane from a delayed start to crushing and the opportunity foregone in growing a summer moong or groundnut crop far outweigh any gains from higher sugar recovery.

Interestingly, the industry itself has been divided on the issue. Mills in the Marathwada region and the adjoining districts of Ahmednagar and Solapur — which include those belonging to both the chairman (Shivajirao Nagavade) and vice-chairman (Jaiprakash Dandegaonkar) of the state cooperative factories’ federation, and also the cooperation minister Subhash Deshmukh – have been in favour of commencing crushing only from December 1.

But mills in western Maharashtra — the districts of Pune, Satara, Sangli and Kolhapur — have opposed delay in crushing, mainly because of worries over their cane getting ‘poached’. Sangli and Kolhapur aren’t too far away from Karnataka, where mills are expected to begin operations by November 15. “There is a shortage of cane in Karnataka. If we do not start in time, the mills there will pay upfront to our farmers, who wouldn’t mind diverting their cane,” notes Arun Lad, chairman of the Kranti SSK mill in Sangli.

Magdum confirms that he was contacted by representatives of Karnataka mills to accept upfront payment against supply of cane. “Personally, I wouldn’t have wanted to give to these mills, as they pay Rs 200-500 per tonne less than the price I get from the factory here. But if the crushing was to take off only from December 1 (mills starting before that date were liable to pay a hefty fine of Rs 500 for every tonne of cane crushed), I would have been left with no option,” he adds.

What has tilted the equation, forcing the Fadnavis government to go back on its earlier decision, has been the greater clout wielded by western Maharashtra mills. In normal years, the Marathwada region along with Solapur and Ahmednagar contribute roughly 50 per cent to Maharashtra’s total sugar output. But this time, 70 per cent of production is likely to come from the four western Maharashtra districts, which were comparatively less impacted by the drought.