Nearly 60 km from Kevadiya Colony where the mammoth Statue of Unity is waiting to be unveiled, a statue of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel stands surrounded by tall grass and eerie silence on the premises of Sardar Sugar mill in Sankheda. Eleven years ago, the cooperative-run sugar mill, named after the country’s first Home Minister, had to be closed down after financial bungling by its board members. Since then over 1,500 farmers of four districts — Chhota Udepur, Panchmahals, Vadodara and Narmada — who had sold 2.62 lakh tonnes of sugarcane to the mill, are waiting for their payment that amounts to Rs 12 crore.
After numerous pleas to the government, and ongoing litigation in the case, the affected farmers are now planning to protest during the unveiling of the Statue of Unity, dedicated to Sardar Patel, to make the government take note of their issue and order relief. They have also threatened to drown themselves in protest at Kevadiya Colony on October 31st when the 182-metre-tall statue will be inaugurated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
“We have our statue of unity here at the factory dedicated to Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel. The new statue means nothing to us when farmers are still facing financial crisis because of the government’s apathy. For the last 11 years, we have been fighting but in vain,” said Kaushik Patel, who had sold 389.73 tonne of sugarcane to the mill and is yet to get Rs 2.18 lakh for it.
According to Chhota Udepur Collector Sujal Mayatra, the issue dates back to 2008 when due to “irregularities of funds and mismanagement”, the Sardar Sugar mill was shut down. “An audit was conducted and discrepancies in funds by the nominated members of the co-operative board were found. Therefore, the board was dissolved and the mill was shut down. The mill had a debt (Rs 10 crore) and to clear that an auction was held. A Mumbai-based firm, Sitaram Sugar, bought the mill (for Rs 36 crore in 2011),” said the Collector. The 15-member cooperative board that operated the sugar mill had government-nominated members.
Between 2008 and 2011, before the mill was auctioned, the farmers made several representations before the district collector, as well as various government bodies, including Department of Agriculture Cooperation and Farmers Welfare, Director of Sugar among others. They even took their case to the State Wide Attention on Grievances by Application of Technology (SWAGAT) in 2009, a redressal system presided over by the then chief minister Narendra Modi.
When the mill went under hammer, the farmers believed that their ordeal has come to an end. But it did not turn out to be so. A petition was filed in the Gujarat High Court which is still pending. “When the High Court intervened and auctioned the factory, 326 farmers claimed their shares from the money raised. But the battle is still on in the court and we are still waiting for our payments,” added Kaushik Patel, the farmer.
According to former executive director of the cooperative mill, Kanchan Patel, who is a BJP member and sarpanch of Alikherav gram panchayat in Bodeli, the factory was “a very ambitious project”. “Initially, the business went smooth and we recorded profit. But certain decisions reversed the trend. Since then we have been a part of this battle,” he said.