The farmers protesting over the non-payment of sugarcane dues for the past four days intensified their agitation Friday by completely blocking the Jalandhar-Ludhiana stretch of the National Highway-1 — one of the busiest roads in Punjab. The protest, launched under the banner of the Bharti Kisan Union (Doaba), also got the support of the Samyukt Kisan Morcha (SKM) which served an ultimatum on the Punjab government, asking it to either clear the dues by August 25 or face a massive morcha in Phagwara.
Apart from the NH-1, the protesting farmers also parked their tractor-trolleys on roads leading to Hoshiarpur, Nawanshahr and Nakodar blocking the traffic. The commuters faced a tough time even as authorities diverted traffic on alternative routes. Police personnel in large numbers were deployed and water cannons stationed at the protest site near Phagwara Sugar Mill.
While announcing an indefinite protest over the alleged delay in the payment of their dues amounting to Rs 72 crore by Phagwara Sugar Mill, farmers had launched the agitation on Monday by blocking the Jalandhar-Ludhiana carriageway of the NH-1.
“Since the Punjab government has taken our protest lightly, we blocked the other side of the highway today,” said BKU (Doaba) president Manjit Singh Rai.
However, ambulances, school buses and other emergency vehicles were allowed to pass, said farmer body’s general secretary Satnam Singh Sahni.
Rai and Sahni said they will not budge till Rs 72 crore was transferred into the accounts of farmers.
“We will turn our agitation into a statewide stir if our demand is not immediately met by the government,” they warned.
Addressing a joint press conference, SKM leaders said earlier Finance Minister Harpal Singh Cheema had assured to arrange a meeting with the chief minister, which was not done. Later a meeting was held with the agriculture minister in Mohali but that too did not help resolve the matter, they said, adding the government should take over the Phagwara mill and sell its property for clearing farmers arrears.
The protests by sugarcane farmers to get their pending dues from sugar mills – both cooperative and private – have become an annual affair in Punjab. While there is a provision to ensure full payment to farmers on time, it is not enforced on the mills by the government.
In Punjab, sugarcane is sown on 87,000-97,000 hectares of land. Farmers secure an average yield of 835-843 quintals per hectare. Last year, Punjab had 87,000 hectares under sugarcane and the mills had crushed 641 lakh quintals. The government has announced the State Advised Price (SAP) of Rs 345, Rs 350 and Rs 360 per quintal for early, mid and late maturing crop, respectively. During 2021-22, sugarcane farmers were to be paid a total of Rs 2,307 crore. They were, however, paid only Rs 1,400 crore.
The pending dues
At the end of the 2021-22 crushing season, 16 mills – nine cooperative and 7 private – were yet to pay farmers Rs 900 crore. Following a protest and after talks with the government, the mills cleared Rs 550 crore. As of now, cooperative mills owe farmers Rs 195 crore and private mills Rs 150 crore just for last crushing season.
There are farmers who are yet to receive payments for 2019-20 and 2020-21 crushing seasons. The Phagwara mill is one of the biggest defaulters — owing Rs 72 crore of which Rs 36 crore is from 2019-20 and 2020-21 and the remaining of the last crushing season.
“In my village, there are 30 farmers who are yet to receive Rs 3 crore from the Phagwara mill…the mill owes me Rs 8 lakh,” said Sahni.
Law for payment
The Punjab Sugarcane (Regulation of Purchase and Supply) Act says that the sugar mills should make arrangements for the payment as soon as sugarcane is supplied to a factory “and the occupier of such a factory shall be liable to pay the price” of sugarcane so supplied.
“Where the occupier liable under sub-section (2) makes default in payment of the price for a period exceeding 14 days from the date of supply of sugarcane to the factory, he shall be liable to pay interest thereon at 15 per cent per annum, as the state government may, by notification, determine from the said date,” read the law.
The crushing season that usually starts from the third week of November goes on till the beginning of April.
BKU (Doaba)’s Rai said, “We take the produce to the mill and they start making payments after 10 to 12 days. The payments come regularly for the first two months and then mills either stop the payments or dole out meagre amounts. The dues accumulated remain pending for months. We only want our payments cleared and have never demanded the 15 per cent interest on the pending dues”.
This has led to farmers resorting to protests, Rai said, while claiming that only Dasuya and Amloh mills make their payments on time.
An annual affair
The problem, farmers and farm leaders says, persists due to lack of government intervention and enforcement. The state government, they say, needs to streamline the sugar industry by upgrading the cooperative mills, the majority of which are running on old machinery with low crushing capacity, and pull up the private mills.
“Majority of private mills are earning huge profits by selling power, ethanol, and liquor (as they also own distilleries), which are all byproducts of sugarcane. But when it comes to the payment to farmers, they drag their feet. Cooperative mills are very old and cannot even increase their sugar recovery rate, which may go up to 11 per cent as against the current 9 per cent,” said a source at the Sugarfed – a group of cooperative mills.
“Also there is a strong need to upgrade the cooperative mills and shunt out the dishonest officials in the cooperative mills who are involved in pilferage,” said a government functionary.
An official statement in Chandigarh quoting Chief Minister Bhagwant Mann said the state government is committed to clear all pending arrears. Mann said even private sugar mills, except the Phagwara mill, have assured that they will clear the arrears by September 7.
As per the statement, the state government had on Thursday released Rs 100 crore to sugarcane farmers and this was deposited in their bank accounts on Friday.
The CM said with this payment, cooperative sugar mills in the state have already paid Rs 526.27 crore to farmers.
Mann said his government is making sincere efforts to ensure that pending payments to farmers are made soon.