Chennai: Private sugar mills are playing cat and mouse with workers and sugarcane farmers -- from not paying their dues worth several crores to holding back wages of workers -- and pushing them into severe distress.
A couple of private mills have even been accused of availing bank loans in the name of farmers, leaving them in debt.
Amid all this ‘highhandedness’ of private mill owners, the state government is trying to evade its responsibility. It has not been heeding the plight of farmers and workers, and has also suspended crushing work in cooperative mills.
With the Union government also remaining elusive to their demands of a hike in the minimum supportpPrice (MSP) for sugarcane, the farmers are facing a bleak future.
In this backdrop, the general strike on November 26, called by workers’ unions with support from farmers’ organisations has deepened the anger against the “anti-farmer, anti-worker” policies of the union government.
DHARANI SUGARS WORKERS DEMAND WAGES
The workers of Dharani Sugars and Chemicals Limited (DSCL) in Polur of Tiruvannamalai district have been without wages since February 2020. The management has suspended plant operation citing revenue losses, leaving workers stranded without any income.
Uthaya Kumar, general secretary of the Tamil Nadu Sugarcane Workers Union, told NewsClick: “The private sugar mills are having a free run in exploiting the workers and the government, labour department and district administration have turned mute spectators. The management of DSCL has unilaterally decided to shut down operations in two of its three plants, leaving the workers in deep trouble”.
The workers of the plant in Polur of Tiruvannamalai district have been on a warpath for the past several months as they have not received wages since February 2020.
“Apart from being paid Rs 4,000 during the Diwali festival, the workers have been without any income since February this year. There are around 240 permanent workers along with 200 apprenticeship staff, and all of them are suffering the same fate”, said Uthaya Kumar.
The workers held an ‘Occupy Mill’ protest with their family members on November 18, after which the district administration agreed to hold tripartite talks within 15 days, but the workers have little hope, given the non-fulfilment of promises on three previous occasions.
‘MISMANAGEMENT LEADING TO LOSSES’
The trade unions allege that mismanagement by the mills is the primary reason for the losses incurred by them. The multiple options in revenue generation from cane and its by-products have opened a variety of ways to increase revenue.
“The mills were struggling a decade ago as the production was limited to sugar alone. In recent times, the mills have started co-generation (of electricity), manufacturing chemicals and even bio-fertilisers. Many cooperative sugar mills have started making profits. The loss-making one are purely because of gross mismanagement of affairs by the management”, Uthaya Kumar added.
Five private mills have issued closure notices and four mills have suspended operations. The closed down mills have not paid the dues of cane farmers as well. Meanwhile, farmers and workers have alleged diversion of funds to other businesses as the reason for the losses.
‘DON'T ABANDON COOPERATIVE MILLS’
On the other side, the state government has shut down crushing operations in five of 16 cooperative mills. The workers of Tirupattur cooperative sugar mills held a week-long sit in strike demanding restart of operations.
Uthaya Kumar said: “The board of directors has agreed to restart the operations shortly. But the state government has time and again shown signs of abandoning the cooperative system, which goes against the wishes of farmers and the workers”.
He said recruitment in private mills has come to a halt, and several vacancies, too, remain unfilled. By abandoning the cooperative mills, the government is fuelling the already rampant unemployment problem, he added.
‘FARMERS UNPAID FOR YEARS’
Farmers who supply cane to the public sector, private and cooperative mills have been awaiting payment for years together. Even as the rules mandate the payment of money within 14 days for the cane supplied, the companies hardly follow this regulation.
D Raveendran, general secretary of the Tamil Nadu Sugarcane Farmers Association said: “The private mills have not paid the dues to the cane growers for long in spite of protests and assurance from the government. We have demanded that the dues be paid with interest to the ailing farmers. This is in practice when the Sugar Control order, 1966 mandates the payment to the farmers within 14 days of procurement”.
Even worse is the action of managements taking loans in the name of farmers, without the farmers being aware of it. The farmers’ association affiliated to the All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS) has complained to the Collector and Superintendent of Police of Cuddalore and Thanjavur districts, but no action has been taken so far, they alleged.
GOVT ASSURES PAYMENT TO FARMERS
The association has also demanded that the State Assured Price (SAP) should be paid immediately to the farmers. The association has accused the government of delaying the payment leading to protests and legal struggles.
After a prolonged legal struggle, the government of Tamil Nadu has agreed to pay the dues pending from the SAP to the farmers. The government has assured the Madras High Court that Rs 182.67 crore in December 2020, followed by Rs 51.18 crore in February and Rs 51.19 crore in April 2021 would be disbursed to the farmers.
“We have fought in the streets and legally to get this verdict. Around one lakh farmers who supplied sugarcane to the public sector and cooperative mills will be benefited from this. The private mills are yet to pay around Rs 1,434 crore to farmers under the heads of SAP and share from profit for the financial years 2005-06 to 2008-09”, Raveendran added.
The demand for increase in MSP is being given less attention by the Bharatiya Janata Party-led union government. The Fair and Remunerative Price (FRP) has been increased only by Rs 10 per quintal. The association has been demanding the MSP to be fixed at Rs 4,500 per tonne.