Harvesting and transportation of sugarcane in western Maharashtra remained paralysed for the third day on Sunday due to a protest by farmers against sugar mills over partial payment of dues.
Led by Swabhimani Shetkari Sanghthana, a prominent organisation of farmers in this region, the farmers in the sugarcane heartland spread over Kolhapur, Sangli, Satara and Solapur districts have been torching offices of sugar mills and locking their field offices over the past two days. Offices of both cooperative and private mills have been targeted.
This region accounts for 60 per cent of the sugar production in Maharashtra, which accounts for 30 per cent of the country’s sugar production.
While Sunday morning passed without any incident, some incidents of protesters burning tyres and disrupting traffic were reported from areas in Kolhapur and Sangli districts in the evening. Trucks carrying sugarcane were stopped on the Pune-Bengaluru highway near Tandulwadi in Sangli districts, bringing traffic to a halt. The offices of all sugar mills in the area were locked down.
The local administration said that protests could resume at night and vigil had been stepped up. Police said all the top leaders of the farmers’ organisations were being watched.
The protests were triggered by the decision of sugar mill owners to pay millers at the rate of Rs 2300 per tonne of cane crushed instead of the full Fair and Remunerative Price (FRP) that is to the tune of Rs 2850 per tonne.
Mill owners say the current selling price of sugar, at about Rs 2900 per quintal, was not adequate to even recover production costs of about Rs 3400 per quintal. Hence, they have said, it is not possible for them to pay the entire FRP in one go.
Politics in the mix, sugar belt stares at difficult days
Farmers say that the partial payment they have received, two months after the sugarcane season began, is not profitable to them. On their part, mills cite financial difficulties and say making full payment of FRP is impossible. At the same time, the political angle of this protest cannot be overlooked — farmer leader and MP Raju Shetti is set to go with the Congress, while the NCP mainly runs the sugar mills. Meanwhile, the BJP governments at the state and the Centre have done little to douse the problem, which is expected to continue for some time.
The mill owners have met Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis over the issue and sought financial help to tide over the crisis. Former Union agriculture minister and NCP chief Sharad Pawar has demanded a bail-out package of Rs 500 crore for the payment of FRP to the farmers.
On Sunday, farmers carrying flags of the Sanghthana locked the offices of the mills in Sangli, Karad and parts of Kolhapur. Sitting MP from Hatkhangale in Kolhapur, Raju Shetti, who is leader of the Sanghthana’s political arm Swabhiman Paksha party, said the protests would continue till the farmers were given full payment.
“It has come to our notice that the chief minister has privately allowed millers to split the FRP and assured them protection. This is completely illegal,” he said.
Shetti said he will meet sugar commissioner Shekhar Gaikwad in Pune on Monday to demand action against mills that have made partial payment of FRP. “Let the commissioner seize the mills’ sugar stock and auction it to recover the remaining amount,” he said.
Earlier on Sunday, NCP chief Pawar said he would talk to Shetti about the strike. Most mills in these areas are controlled by leaders of the NCP or the Congress, who are in talks to include Shetti’s party into an alliance for the upcoming Lok Sabha and Assembly elections. Asked if any decision on the alliance had been taken, Shetti told The Indian Express, “We are concentrating on the andolan now,” he said.
Accusing the central and state governments of not being serious about the issue, Shetti signalled further intensification of the protests. “We will not allow BJP president Amit Shah to come to Kolhapur on January 24,” he said.