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Coronavirus lockdown: Working 24X7, full strength, but sugar mill faces ‘drastic fall in sales’

The mill usually takes a break only for maintenance, once in 20 days.

Written by Amitava Chakraborty | Shamli,up | Published: April 27, 2020 1:23:28 am
coronavirus india lockdown, coronavirus update, Uttar pradesh farmers, Uttar pradesh sugarcane farmers, Uttar pradesh sugar mills, corona, coronavirus update in india, coronavirus in india, coronavirus india, coronavirus cases in india, coronavirus latest news, Sugar mills such as Bajaj Hindusthan are among the few units which haven’t seen production drop, or labour numbers fall, during the lockdown. (Express photo by Gajendra Yadav)

Bajaj Hindusthan Sugar Ltd
No. of workers: 650
Usual strength: 650

OUTSIDE the rear gate of Bajaj Hindusthan Sugar Limited’s mill, 17 km from Shamli, along the Delhi-Saharanpur road, stand a row of sugarcane farmers queued up as per the size of their vehicle — from the smaller tractors to the larger ones, from tempos to trucks — as a mill official goes down their ranks distributing masks. In the silence on the highway, the vehicles and the mill operations, on 24X7, are the only signs of activity on a hot Wednesday.

General Manager Lekhpal Singh (59), who has been working in the sugar industry since 1982 and running this mill for two years now, says they couldn’t have stopped production during the lockdown. “Restarting the mill, because of logistics and operational reasons, would have been a nightmare,” Singh says.

The mill usually takes a break only for maintenance, once in 20 days.

As a result, sugar mills like Bajaj Hindusthan are the few units which haven’t seen production drop, or labour numbers fall, during the lockdown, which has been in place for over a month. Shamli had reported 26 coronavirus cases till April 23.

Singh says their production is on a par with before — about 9,000 quintals per day — and they have retained their entire 650 employees (400 on payroll, 200 contractual), who work in 12-hour shifts.

It helps that most of their staff are locals, who have been given passes to come to the mill.

The problem is the lack of demand. “We are witnessing a drastic fall in sales,” says Subhash Bahuguna, who heads the mill’s finance department. “Of the 9,000 quintals we produce daily, we sold around 7,000 quintals prior to the lockdown. But between March 21 and April 21, we sold about 2,200 quintals on an average. As a result, our godown is filling up. The shutting of restaurants and sweet shops, the fall in consumption of soft beverages, have led to the fall in demand.”

Maintenance too has been an issue as this is usually done by a third party, inaccessible due to the travel restrictions.

Sajan, 22, earns Rs 8,000 a month, taking hardly a day off, he says. Now on duty 9 am-9 pm, he gets his food from home and maintains social distancing and regularly uses hand sanitisers at the mill. “It is wearing the mask for long hours that I find difficult,” he says.

Saurav Kumar, 24, deployed at the machine that sews mouths of sugar bags, is a college dropout who also lives nearby, at Masai village. His face draped with a gamchha (towel), he complains about the heat.

With officials watching closely, General Manager Singh says they are not taking any chances.

The mill has stocked up on sanitisers, placed them across the factory, while carrying out sanitisation of the premises as well as the 51 neighbouring villages from which their workers come.

“We are also purchasing masks and distributing them among farmers for free. The temperature of every worker is checked at the gates. Even the temple located on the premises has been closed, except for the priest to do aarti.”

Singh adds that they are paying full salaries to the few workers who were on leave and couldn’t join once the lockdown began.

Sitting at the Shamli Ganna Committee Office in the heart of Shamli city, District Cane Officer (DCO) Vijay Bahadur Singh says they classified sugar mills as an essential service to ensure there was no break in production. “Materials like packaging bags, sulphur etc, are imported from other states and we took steps to ensure their smooth supply. Proactive action across states ensured that the mills never ran out of supply.”

According to Singh, production is normal across all the 119 sugar mills in Uttar Pradesh, including the three in Shamli.

About the lack of demand, the DCO says, “Corona kuch leke jayega, aur bahut kuch deke bhi jayega (Corona will take away some things, but also give a lot). The lockdown has helped us digitise everything. Now, leaflets are not sent across villages notifying farmers the date when they can sell their produce to mills. Everything happens on the e-ganna app and over SMS. We have suddenly become paperless.”

That is hardly enough for Veer Pal Singh, senior vice president and head of Bajaj’s Shamli unit, who has an office next to the mill. Once the lockdown lifts, he says, “We expect an improvement (in sales), though it will not be anything like before.”

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