Rajaram Chavan is a committed Shiv Sena man who has always voted for the saffron alliance. This time, he isn’t supporting Jai Siddheshwar Shivacharya Swami, the alliance’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) candidate for the Solapur Lok Sabha constituency — a decision having more to do with his own dwindling economic fortunes than long-held political beliefs.
Chavan, who grows sugarcane on his 6.5-acre land in Arali village of Solapur district’s Mangalwedha taluka, hasn’t been paid for his 150 tonnes crop delivered to the nearby mill of Fabtech Sugars Pvt. Ltd in mid-January. “I should have got the money within 14 days of supply (as per the government’s Sugarcane Control Order). But the mill’s management has told me that they are awaiting release of a government subsidy on exports to enable clearing their dues,” he remarks.
Compounding his anger is that the Centre’s fair and remunerative price (FRP) of Rs 2,057.11 per tonne fixed for the mill in the 2018-19 crushing season (October-September) — which it is supposed to pay, after deducting harvesting and transport charges from the field — is below the
Rs 2,216 rate that he received from the Shri Sant Damaji Cooperative Sugar Factory (also in Mangalwedha) for 2017-18. “I had supplied 250 tonnes last season. This time, not only has my cane yield dropped because of white grub (insect larvae) infestation, but even the price is lower and I haven’t been paid that so far. Why should I vote for this government, which neither forces nor enables mills to pay us?,” asks this 40-year-old farmer.
Solapur and Madha, a constituency in the same district, vote in the second phase of the current national elections on April 18. In 2014, the BJP won Solapur by nearly 1.5 lakh votes, while the candidate in Madha backed by it lost by just over 25,000 votes. This time, the BJP’s Jai Siddheshwar is pitted against veteran Congress leader and former Chief Minister Sushilkumar Shinde, who had lost in 2014. The Nationalist Congress Party’s (NCP) Vijaysinh Mohite-Patil, who won Madha narrowly last time, is set to join the BJP. The latter has fielded former Congressman Ranjitsinh Naik-Nimbalkar from Madha against NCP’s Sanjay Shinde, president of the Solapur Zilla Parishad who was earlier elected with the BJP’s support.
However, all these high-profile defections have little resonance among voters like Chavan, who are only worried about their unpaid cane dues and dwindling fodder stocks even as a long and harsh summer awaits them. The usual enthusiasm seen in this region during election time — NCP chief Sharad Pawar had himself initially talked of contesting from Madha, which he had won in 2009 — is clearly lacking in rural Solapur.
Solapur has 39 sugar mills, the highest for any district in Maharashtra. Out of the 39, only 31 have been operational in the current season, crushing 160.15 lakh tonnes (lt) of cane and producing 16.40 lt of sugar. That is more than 15 per cent of the state’s total sugar output of 106.36 lt this season, based on data available till April 10. All mills in Solapur closed their operations for the season by mid-March. Out of Maharashtra’s 195 mills that took season this time, only 26 — mostly in Pune and Ahmednagar — are still crushing.
While cane payment arrears owed to Uttar Pradesh farmers have made news, the problem is no less in Maharashtra. Many mills here aren’t paying even the Centre’s FRP, leave alone the higher state advised price of Rs 3,150-3,250/tonne fixed by governments such as UP. During the current season till March 31, Maharashtra mills had bought cane worth
Rs 21,154.48 crore at the Centre’s FRP of Rs 2,450 per tonne (average, net of harvesting and transport charges of Rs 600-650/ tonne). As against this, actual payments were only Rs 16,544.93 crore, translating into arrears of
Rs 4,609.55 crore. In Solapur district alone, mills have effected payments of just Rs 2,350.08 crore out of the Rs 3,415.47 crore FRP value of cane, corresponding to Rs 1,065.39 crore of dues.
“Who else should be blamed for this other than the present government, both in the state and at the Centre?,” points out Dyaneshwar Nagane (66), who cultivates 7.5 acres near Mangalwedha town and has sold 250 tonnes of cane to the Shri Sant Damaji cooperative mill. Nagane has been paid a rate of only Rs 2,000 per tonne, which is below the factory’s FRP of Rs 2,224.06 linked to its average sugar recovery from cane. “I have not been paid anything after December. The mill people say they will pay the balance amount after the government releases its promised subsidy. Why is the government, then, not releasing it? In 2014, I voted for the BJP. Why should I do it again, when even prices of onion (which he grows as an intercrop with cane) have crashed?,” adds Nagane.
Mills are, in turn, citing low sugar realisations and lack of liquidity as the main reasons for their inability to clear cane dues. “The Centre has raised the minimum ex-factory sale price for sugar to Rs 31 per kg. But even at this rate, it is impossible to pay farmers, when sugar production cost is Rs 36? Our application for the Centre’s soft loan scheme (from banks, against which it provides an interest subsidy of 7-10 per cent) has been approved, which should help us pay growers,” claims B.B. Jadhav, chairman of Jakraya Sugar Ltd in Solapur’s Mohol taluka. His mill paid a cane price of Rs 2,500 per tonne in 2017-18. In the current season, it has struggled to discharge even its net FRP of Rs 2,314.52.
The Narendra Modi government’s soft loan scheme to enable mills clear their cane dues was announced towards end-February. Whether it has come too late will be known only on May 23, the day of counting. For now, though, the likes of Chavan and Nagane aren’t amused. Their disenchantment and anger is an undercurrent that is palpable. Whether and how this plays out on voting day remains to be seen.