As the Opposition uses the subdued cotton and groundnut prices to target the BJP in the Gujarat Assembly elections, in the prosperous sugar belt of southern Gujarat, including Surat and Navsari districts, the BJP government appears to have overcome that hurdle.
Around this time every year, the height of the sugar season, Katar Singh comes here from Baghpat in western Uttar Pradesh. “I arrive after Diwali and leave before Holi, and help produce gur (jaggery) for the local market,” says Singh, who is at work in a makeshift gur manufacturing unit in an open field, in village Aret in Mandvi Assembly segment of Surat district. Pointing out that Baghpat is one of the country’s largest sugarcane producing regions, Singh, who is in his early 60s, says price realisation here is much higher and prompt. His assistant is from Shamli district, not too far from Baghpat.
Singh says farmers here are paid about Rs 2,500 a tonne for their standing crop, approximately Rs 350 a tonne for harvesting and another Rs 200 for transportation. In total, he says, a farmer realises over Rs 3,000 for a tonne of sugarcane from his farm. In Uttar Pradesh, while the price offered is comparable, there are delayed payments.
“We have not had any problem sourcing sugarcane from farmers from the nearby regions at these prices for our gur manufacturing,” says Vinod Patel, who hails from the community of Koli-Patels, and is himself a sugarcane farmer apart from owning a gur unit in Mandavi Assembly segment of Surat.
Fellow farmer Bhikhu Bhai Patel says sugar mills pay even more, offering upward of Rs 3,500 per tonne of sugarcane procured last year. Bhikhu Bhai expects prices to be equally good this time. Of the rural Assembly constituencies in Surat and Navsari district — Kamrej, Bardoli, Mahua, Mandavi, Gandevi and Jalalpore — all but one are held by the BJP. The Congress had won Mandavi last time. These constituencies go to polls in the first phase, on December 9.
The sugarcane farmers of the region belong to Koli-Patel and Kunbi-Patel, as well as the Patidar Leuva Patel communities. Sanket Patel of Morey village in Bardoli Assembly segment, a Leuva Patel, says Hardik Patel’s agitation for reservation for Patidars is merely a way to further his own career. “Reservation is not possible beyond 50 per cent, then how is the Congress going to deliver it?” he says. The Congress, which has got Hardik’s tacit support, has promised to fulfill the demand.
With a majority of the Patels here well-to-do — most have NRI relatives and claim to visit them during vacations — the demand for a quota has little resonance. The Koli-Patels and Kunbi-Patels already enjoy OBC reservation. Consequently, they remain critical of Patidar agitation and appear lending their weight to BJP.
Many indicate that they will end up going with the party they have always voted for, even the BJP supporters who are now disgruntled with the government. L B Patel, a Koli-Patel over 60 years of age, stands at the Dandi village square in Navsari district with others of his age group discussing the coming elections. The Dandi march by Mahatma Gandhi ended here, while the site of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel’s Bardoli Satyagraha is located around 60 km away.
While he makes it clear he will vote for the BJP — “What has the Congress done in 60 years?” — L B Patel says he has no hopes from a future government. “We got a village water tank installed from our own money for assured water supply. And look at the prices of onions and tomatoes! The government doesn’t bother about us. We have to bother about ourselves.”
A woman in her late 30s, in Jalalpore Assembly segment of Navsari, is as angry at the BJP government, including the Centre. “I didn’t get any benefit from my Jan Dhan account nor have I seen any benefit from demonetisation. I have applied for the PM Awaas Yojana, but haven’t heard whether I will get it,” she rattles off, but ends by adding that she continues to have faith in Narendra Modi.