“Uth gaya ganna, dab gaya Jinnah (Sugarcane has displaced Muhammad Ali Jinnah),” says Jitender Hooda as he interprets the upcoming bypoll to the Kairana Lok Sabha constituency.
For this 48-bigha (8.1 acres) farmer from Kheri Bairagi village of Shamli district and tehsil, the main issue in the election scheduled on May 28 — necessitated by the death of BJP Member of Parliament Hukum Singh — is sugarcane.
Kairana constituency has six sugar mills: four private (the Shamli factory of Sir Shadi Lal Enterprises, Rana Sugars’ factory in Unn, Bajaj Hindusthan’s in Thana Bhawan and Uttam Sugar’s in Shermau) and two cooperative (in Sarsawa and Nanauta).
In the current 2017-18 season (October-September), the six mills have, as on May 18, bought sugarcane worth Rs 1,778.49 crore at the UP government’s State Advised Price (SAP) of Rs 315-325 per quintal. Of this, they were to pay Rs 1,695.25 crore within 14 days of purchase, but have so far disbursed just Rs 888.03 crore. That translates into Rs 807.22 crore in arrears – for a single constituency.
“How does it matter whether or not Aligarh Muslim University has a photo of Pakistan’s founder? Our only concern today is cane payment,” says Hooda, who supplies to the Shamli factory, which alone has cane dues of Rs 190.33 crore. The other five mills, too, have sizable arrears: Unn (Rs 182.84 crore), Thana Bhawan (Rs 182.80 crore), Nanauta (Rs 115.66 crore), Shermau (Rs 80.79 crore) and Sarsawa (Rs 54.79 crore).
Brahm Pal Singh, who grows sugarcane on 34 out of his 45-bigha holding in Laprana village of Shamli’s Unn tehsil, is more direct. “Their (BJP) manifesto stated that we will get full payment for our cane within 14 days of sale. The Minister for Sugarcane Development Suresh Rana is himself the MLA (member of legislative assembly) from Thana Bhawan. Yet, there been no payment after December 31 and this government is even allowing sugar imports from Pakistan,” he alleges (the Commerce Ministry has clarified that only 13,110 tonnes was imported in 2017-18 and another 1,908 tonnes in the current fiscal till May 14).
In the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, Hukum Singh garnered 50.54 per cent of the votes cast in Kairana. In the 2017 state elections, his party’s vote share fell to 38.24 per cent, but it won four out of the constituency’s five Assembly segments (Shamli, Thana Bhawan, Gangoh and Nakur) and lost only one (Kairana).
This time, the BJP’s candidate (Hukum Singh’s daughter Mriganka) is up against a united Opposition, freshly emboldened by its success in preventing the saffron party from forming a government in Karnataka. Taking on Mriganka is Begum Tabassum Hasan, whose son Nahid is the Samajwadi Party MLA from Kairana. She is fighting on the ticket of Chaudhary Ajit Singh’s Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD), which has a base mainly amongst the Jat peasant community.
“Religion is secondary. For us, she is the RLD candidate and we are all voting for Chaudhary saab,” declares Yashpal Malik, a 40-bigha farmer from Lak. This village in Shamli tehsil has around 8,600 voters, of whom an estimated 6,600 are Jats who own 98 per cent of its 27,000-odd bigha farmland. “Earlier, we had 1,450 Muslim voters, but they all left after the 2013 Muzaffarnagar and Shamli riots. Their going has affected us because they used for work for us as raj mistri (mason), badhai (carpenter), painters and also farm labourers. They lost lives, while many of our young boys were embroiled in false cases,” he adds.
Malik has supplied about 2,200 quintals of cane to the Shamli mill this season and received hardly a quarter of the Rs 7.15 lakh due to him at the SAP of Rs 325/quintal for early-maturing varieties.
Recreating RLD’s old Jat-Muslim alliance is what Ajit Singh, too, is attempting. “Today, forget getting payments, you are actually having to beg mills to lift your cane. This is because they divided you on communal lines and your own party has not a single MP or MLA. You have a chance to vote again as farmers and not bother about the religion or caste of your candidate,” he says at a rally in Shamli’s Lisad village, where Jats constitute three-fourths of its 12,000-plus voters. This village also saw a dozen Muslims being killed in the 2013 violence, besides migration of all the community’s 2,000-2,100 voters.
The Kairana Lok Sabha seat has some 16 lakh voters, which includes an estimated 5.5 lakh Muslims and 1.5 lakh Jats. That, plus 2.5 lakh Dalits (mostly Jatavs, who traditionally vote for the Bahujan Samaj Party), makes for a formidable combination on paper favouring the RLD candidate. The other main community-wise voters are Kashyap (2 lakh), Gujjar (1.4 lakh) and Saini (1.2 lakh), in addition to Brahmins, Banias and Rajputs, who have all strongly backed the BJP in recent elections.
Rana, UP’s sugarcane minister, concedes that payments to farmers are an issue. However, he blames it on ex-factory sugar prices crashing from Rs 36-37 to Rs 26-27 per kg in the last seven months. “This isn’t the first time we are having the problem of cane dues from over-production. But unlike in the past, when you had to burn the cane in your fields or dump it in canals, we will ensure that mills will run till the last stick is crushed,” he promises farmers at Kela Shikarpur village in Thana Bhawan block.
UP mills are likely to end up crushing over 1,100 lakh tonnes (lt) of cane this season, as against 827.16 lt in 2016-17 and 645.66 lt in 2015-16. As on May 18, they had procured cane valued at Rs 34,518.57 crore, of which Rs 33,375.79 crore was payable within the stipulated 14-day period. They have paid Rs 21,151.56 crore so far, leaving arrears of Rs 12,224.23 crore.
“Yes, there are cane dues, but our mills have already paid more than what they did in the entire 2015-16 season. We are doing everything possible to expeditiously clear the arrears,” Rana tells The Indian Express.