In Baghpat’s Baraut tehsil, all eyes were on a corpse kept on two thick slabs of ice. Sugarcane farmer Udayveer Singh, who was on a dharna over non-payment of dues by sugar mills and an increase in rural power tariff, died on Saturday morning at the protest site. Singh, 58, was among the 50-odd sugarcane farmers who launched the protest on May 21.
As news of Singh’s death spread, the protest site swelled and hundreds of angry farmers from the sugarcane belt laid siege to the tehsil office. Leaders of Opposition parties, including the SP, RLD and Congress, rushed to the protest site.
Baraut tehsil is barely 30 km from where Prime Minister Narendra Modi will, on Sunday, throw open the country’s first “smart” highway, which touches the western UP district of Baghpat. Initially, district authorities claimed that Singh may have suffered a cardiac arrest. Around 8 pm, nearly 10 hours after his death, the family lodged an FIR, which said Singh had suffered an “unnatural death”.
At the protest site, Chaudhary Surender Singh, one of the leaders of the agitating farmers, said, “Power bill has been raised to around Rs 1,600 every two months. Our dues have been mounting by the day. There are farms where the sugarcane has not even been harvested. The farmers are facing a crisis situation.”
The protesting farmers said that while the BJP had promised to clear their dues within 14 days of coming to power in the state, it instead raised the power tariff, aggravating the crisis for farmers such as Singh, who owned eight bighas in the nearby Jeewana village.
“The government hiked power tariff twice in the last five months. Sugar mills have closed. They are importing sugar from abroad. It is a grave issue. (Singh) sacrificed his life fighting for the interest of others, he is a martyr,” RLD leader Jayant Chaudhary said.
Chaudhary also pitched for Opposition unity, saying if parties can reach electoral understandings, they should make common cause with farmers as well.
In neighbouring Kairana, where sugarcane dues have emerged as the biggest issue in the upcoming bypoll, the Opposition candidate is contesting on an RLD symbol.
“We will soon release last year’s dues. A proposal has been sent to the state headquarters. On tariff, we have promised farmers that a meeting will be arranged with the western UP power authority. We can only execute the policies framed by the government,” SDM Arvind Kumar Dwivedi told The Sunday Express.
Dwivedi said the current charge of using tubewells was Rs 180 for 1 Horse Power machine. The mills are supposed to pay around Rs 290 per quintal to the farmers, he said.
In Jeewana, Singh’s family members – his wife and three sons, the youngest in Class 10 – huddled in the courtyard, waiting for his body to be brought.
Baghpat ADM Lokpal Singh, who reached the spot around 6 pm, initially announced a compensation of Rs 5 lakh for Singh’s family and later raised it to Rs 12 lakh.
“I will write to the government recommending that the compensation be enhanced to Rs 50 lakh as is being demanded by the farmers and the family,” he said.