On the road to the sugar mill in Malakpur, the number of flies first multiply, then quadruply. It’s late May and the mercury is soaring, but at Malakpur, the air is thick with the smell of molasses.
The sprawling plant, which in many ways epitomises farm distress from mounting cane payment dues, lies at the far end of acres of fields on the outskirts of Baraut town in western Uttar Pradesh’s Baghpat district. Workers, the ones remaining after the mill has shut for the current crushing season, crowd around its unswept corners.
Set up in 1998 and belonging to the Umesh Modi Group, the mill crushed 146.27 lakh quintals of sugarcane between October 24, 2017, and May 14, when it closed. This was worth Rs 459.01 crore at the UP government’s State Advised Price (SAP) of Rs 315 per quintal for ‘general’ varieties. While mills are required, by law, to pay the SAP amount within 14 days of cane purchase, the Malakpur factory has till date disbursed a mere Rs 32 crore. That amounts to less than 7 per cent of what is due to its 34,000-odd farmers.
Among those the Malakpur mill owed money to was Udayveer Singh. The 58-year-old died on May 26 morning, five days after he, along with other farmers, launched an agitation at the Baraut tehsil office over the pending cane dues. While the exact cause of his death is yet to be ascertained, it made headlines simply for the timing —two days before a crucial by-poll in the neighbouring Kairana parliamentary constituency. Jayant Chaudhary, the vice-president of the Rashtriya Lok Dal, whose candidate was fighting the election, rushed to pay his respects to Udayveer, whose body was displayed by the protesting farmers. Congress president Rahul Gandhi also referred to the farmer’s death in a tweet.
On May 27, a day after Udayveer died, Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited the area, addressing a rally barely 30 km from Baraut in the same Baghpat district, after inaugurating the Rs 11,000-crore Eastern Peripheral Expressway.
The Kairana bypoll result now in, Narendar Rana from Bhadal village in Baraut tehsil says that the ruling BJP’s defeat is proof that farmer anger cannot be wished away. “The BJP leaders here desperately tried to scuttle our movement ahead of the PM’s rally. But their plan didn’t work,” he says.
The anger of farmers like him isn’t limited to just cane — specifically the failure of the Yogi Adityanath government to implement the BJP’s 2017 Assembly election promise of making mills pay within the mandated 14-day period. It also extends to the state government effecting a steep hike in rural power tariffs. “Not only are we not being paid our cane dues, but scores of FIRs have been registered against farmers for non-payment of electricity bills. Instead of the mill-owners, we are the ones being treated like thieves,” fumes Rana.
Payment to farmers by mills is made against “parchis” or receipts, specifying the weight of the particular batch of cane supplied and the price payable for that quantity. Each parchi represents roughly 20 quintals or one buffalo buggi (cart) load of produce. Farmers in western UP usually describe the payments owed to them in terms of parchis. Thus, Virender Singh of Badarkha village says he hasn’t been paid for 75 parchis; Jaivir Malik from Chandanheri quotes 50 unpaid receipts; Karam Veer Singh from Sanauli cites 70; and Om Prakash Singh of Barauli 12. Rakam Pal, from Sanauli, is awaiting payments on five receipts against cane from a meagre 4 bighas of land (5.9 bighas make an acre).
Udayveer’s eldest son Prahlad says he had grown sugarcane on 12 bighas and was owed over Rs 1.8 lakh by the Malakpur mill against the 29 parchis (about 580 quintals) of cane that he had supplied this season. “He had not got a single rupee from them. On top of it, my father had a loan of Rs 2.5 lakh and unpaid electricity bills. A few days before he died, my younger brother Sagar told him about the Rs 30,000 tuition fees owed to the local private school where he was studying. He said that his name may be struck off the rolls if the payment was not made immediately.”
While the district administration announced compensation of Rs 12 lakh for Udayveer’s family, Prahlad says they are yet to get the money.
Prahlad worked as a driver with the courier services company Blue Dart at Delhi’s T3 airport terminal until his father’s death, but is now back home. Sagar is in Class 10, while the middle son Deepak barely makes ends meet from a small private sector job in Delhi. The family stays in a four-room house at Baraut tehsil’s Jiwana village. Their possessions include two buffaloes and a non-functional washing machine.
Read | A sugar rush
Baraut Sub-Divisional Magistrate (SDM) Arvind Kumar Dwivedi points out that contrary to the general perception that Jats — the community to which most farmers in this belt belong — are big prosperous farmers, a majority own not more than 10-15 bighas.
He adds, “We have issued an RC (recovery certificate, which empowers the district administration to recover cane dues as arrears of land revenue from defaulting mills) of Rs 244 crore to the factory. It should start paying in the next few days.”
But how that would take place is not clear. Dwivedi himself admits there are no easy or quick solutions.
The SDM says he is also “looking into” the increase in power tariffs for agricultural tubewell connections effected by the Yogi administration — from Rs 100 to 180 per horsepower per month. The farmers call this steep given the average13-HP electric pumpsets used by them for irrigating their cane fields. “I have promised them a meeting with the managing director of the Paschimanchal Vidyut Vitaran Nigam (the power distribution utility in the western UP region). But there is not much we can do if the hike was a decision taken at the level of the state government,” he adds.
Meanwhile, at the Baraut tehsil office, the farmers continue their protest, camping under a large banyan tree. The next step, they say, would be a mahapanchayat, where they would invite leaders from the RLD, SP, BSP and Congress, to force the government to act. Satyendar Singh, who owns 21 bighas in Loyan village, not far from the Malakpur mill, is owed Rs 4 lakh for the cane that he supplied in the just ended season. But that has not stopped him from planting cane for the next 2018-19 season. When asked why cane again, he says: “Is mitti mein yahi ugta hai (In this land, it is the only crop that grows).”