As politicians sweat it out on the campaign trail in the sugarcane belt of southern Maharashtra, the common
link which unites them seems to be missing from the campaign narrative.
Most of the candidates, including Swabhimani Paksha chief Raju Shetti, have avoided addressing the issue of cane dues, which has plunged the state’s otherwise thriving sugar sector in an unprecedented crisis.
The political narrative in the Lok Sabha seats of Sangli, Hatkanangale and Kolhapur, and to an extent in Satara, has always had cane and its pricing as its central theme. Traditionally, sugar barons have been elected in these seats, thanks to the extensive network of their cooperative bodies.
Over the years, as more and more private mills started exerting influence in the area, the hold of the sugar barons eased a bit, but cane pricing remained an important issue in the region. The Swabhimani Paksha shot into prominence through its agitations to seek a better cane price from sugar barons.
In the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, all the three MPs elected from the region — Dhananjay Mahadik from Kolhapur (NCP), Sanjay Patil from Sangli (BJP) and Raju Shettti from Hatkanangale — had links with the sugar sector.
The situation is not very different this year as most parties have fielded candidates with strong connections to the sugar industry. Mahadik is pitted against Sanjay Mandlik of the Shiv Sena, who is the chairman of the Sadashivrao Mandlik Cooperative Sugar Mill, while in Sangli, Swabhimani Paksha candidate candidate Vishal Patil is the chairman of Vasantdada Cooperative Sugar mill.
But, as the campaign gains pace, most candidates have avoided making any reference to the crores of cane dues that farmers in the region have been waiting for, and the fact that cane dues in Maharashtra had reportedly reached Rs 4,005.77 crore by April 15. Of the 195 mills that had taken to the crushing season this time, only 34 have managed to clear 100 per cent of their dues.
The unprecedented crisis has forced the Centre to announce a series of measures to help the sugar sector, which has been grappling with sliding prices and mounting dues. Given the state of affairs, none of the Lok Sabha candidates seem to be keen to bring up the crisis in their campaign speeches.
The candidates’ changing political narratives have also had to align with shifting political allegiances. While Shetti and the Swabhimani Paksha are part of the Congress-NCP alliance this year, the party had fought against the two political heavyweights in the 2009 and 2014 Lok Sabha elections. In the previous poll campaigns, cane dues and better realisation were among the most pertinent issues for Shetti.
Now, as Shetti shares the stage with established sugar barons like Jayant Patil — the NCP state president — his supporters are still trying to accept the changing realities. The two-time MP has promised to keep up his agitation on cane dues, with his supporters grudgingly agreeing that he has kept his promises so far.
But Shetti sharing the stage with established sugar barons has attracted flak, admitted Swabhimani Paksha members. “When we receive such criticism, we point to leaders in the opposition camps, whose record of payment is dismal.
Some leaders have not paid a penny for the last two seasons. At least the leaders on our side have cleared 80 per cent of their payments,” said a Paksha member.
Local growers, however, said they had faith in the sugar mills and were hopeful that their dues would be cleared eventually.
Sena leader Sanjay Mandlik said like most mills in the region, they had also paid at the rate of Rs 2,300 per tonne of cane. “Once the government dues are cleared, we will pay our farmers… they trust us,” he said.