After grappling with low prices, the sugar sector in Maharashtra has a new problem in the offing, which promises to snowball into a major issue in the upcoming crushing season of 2018-19. The central government’s decision to scrap the 40 per cent or Rs 40 lakh subsidy for purchase of mechanised harvesters, say millers, will put the brakes on the much-needed mechanisation in the sector.
The lack of adequate harvesting labourers had resulted in many mills running below capacity in the last season.
Traditionally, oosh thodani kamgars or cane harvesters have been drawn either from the district in North Maharashtra or from Marathwada. Mills enter into an informal agreement with labour contractors, who make such labourers available before the start of the crushing season. These labourers normally arrive at the mills after Diwali and return to their villages after the completion of the crushing. At least 6-7 lakh labourers are employed in the state for cane harvesting.
Over the past few years, mills have been complaining about the paucity of labourers, which they say has hampered their functioning. Mills are increasingly turning to mechanised harvesters, although reports about such machines have been mixed. Last season, the number of labourers in mills in the state had dropped by 10-15 per cent due to which many mills in the sugar belt of Western Maharashtra reported under-capacity crushing.
Until last year, the Centre had been providing a subsidy of either 40 per cent or Rs 40 lakh under the Rastriya Krishi Vikas Yojana (RKVY) for farmers to purchase these machines. Since 2011, when the scheme was introduced, over 200 such machines have been purchased in the state. But from 2018-19, the subsidy scheme has been suspended for individual farmers or groups. Instead, such machines, which have been combined with other large machines, like cotton pickers and combine harvesters, are only used for establishing custom hiring centres.
This move comes at a time when Maharashtra has reported cane cultivation of over 11 lakh hectares of farm land. With a bumper crop in the offing, mills are wary of an upcoming labour crisis as certain unions have issued strike calls for the upcoming season. Millers and farmer leaders like MP Raju Shetti have protested against this move, which they say will harm the industry.
Madhavrao Ghatge, chairman of the Kolhapur-based Shree Gurudutt Sugar Limited, said mechanisation was the need of the hour. “Being a sturdy crop with fixed returns, cane will always remain the first choice for farmers. The process of weaning away from the crop might not succeed. This decision to stop the subsidy is indeed unfortunate,” he said, adding that millers have made representations to the government for continuation of the subsidy programme.
Rohit Pawar, vice-president of the Indian Sugar Mills Association (ISMA), the apex body of private millers in the country, slammed the suspension of subsidy. “The machines were generally procured by rural youths who came together to purchase one. With this move, the government will kill rural entrepreneurship,” he said. In this system, farmers pooled their resources and availed of bank loans to purchase the machines. Mills would provide the guarantee for the loans, that they would provide work to such machines. Sources in the sugar commissionerate say at least Rs 15-16 crore worth of subsidy for the last year is yet to be released by the government.