Patna: Amid the nationwide lockdown, nearly 600 workers of Riga sugar mill in Bihar’s Sitamarhi district have been removed “temporarily” by the mill management without any prior information. The mill management has pasted a notice written in English informing the workers that they were laid off, citing increasing loss and bank loan.
The mill management has informed workers, including seasonal workers covered under wage board award of sugar industries, that there will be no work for them due to the temporary stoppage at the sugar plant from May 11 to July 11, 2020. The management has made it clear in its notice the workers will not be paid for this period.
Angered by this decision, workers staged a protest at the main gate of the mill, which was locked by the management, on Monday and Tuesday. They shouted slogans and demanded the state government’s intervention.
Riga Sugar Mill’s Workers’ Union General secretary Manoj Kumar told NewsClick on Tuesday that the mill management’s decision is not only against labour laws, it also constitutes “inhuman” action against poor workers during the lockdown. “Work inthe sugar mill is the only source of livelihood for hundreds of workers including the seasonal workers. Now, they have to struggle for livelihood.”
“Workers had worked till Saturday evening (May 9) in the sugar mill. But when they went to work as usual on May 11, they saw the notice by the management. It was shocking as neither workers were informed, nor the workers' union knew about it,” alleged Kumar.
He said that workers will not remain silent and they will protest. “Workers have not been paid the salary of April so far and the top officials of the mill have switched off their mobile phones,” he claimed.
Apart from this, thousands of sugarcane farmers have reportedly not been paid dues for the sugarcane that they had supplied to the mill.
Two local sugarcane growing farmers, Sunil Kumsr and Maheshwar Mahto, claimed that the mill management has not paid arrears worth Rs 112 crores to them. This is despite the fact that last month, the state government had directed all 11 private sugar mill owners to pay the pending dues to the farmers in view of the coronavirus pandemic.
Deepak Bhattacharya, Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU) state president said that the state government as well as the central government are deliberately ignoring the violation of the Sugarcane Purchase and Supply Act 1966. Sugarcane farmers have to be paid money within 14 days of the purchase, as per the Act. In case of a delay, sugarcane farmers have to be paid the dues with interest, he said.
Riga sugar mill management had recently sought financial help from the state government in view of the heavy losses to the mill. “This sugar mill has been facing a financial crisis for a long time.The mill had taken a loan of Rs 12 crore from the bank, but has failed to repay it so far,” said Mukesh Dhama, an official from the mill.
According to its notice, “The management had for some considerable time in the past has been running the sugar plant under utmost constrained particularly the recent shortage of raw materials (sugar cane)in the season of 2019-20 and it facts and circumstances beyond our control marred with huge loss now running under NPA (sic).”
Last month, the management had demanded a soft loan of Rs 40 crore from the state government to pay dues of the sugarcane farmers and workers, but to no avail.
Thousands of sugarcane farmers have been demanding an increase in sugarcane prices as well as payment of their dues for the sugarcane supplied to the sugar mills across the state. They are accusing the state government of having neglected them, and of not ensuring clearance of their dues within the stipulated time.
As per the Sugarcane Development Department’s official website, there are 28 sugar mills – 11 operational and 17 closed.
Out of 11 operational sugar mills in Bihar, five are in West Champaran – Bagaha sugar mill, Harinagar sugar mill, Narkatiaganj sugar mill, Majhauli sugar mill and Lauria sugar mill. The sugar mill in Chanpatia has been closed.
Three sugar mills are in Gopalganj district followed by one sugar mill each in East Champaran, Sitamarhi and Samastipur districts.
With half of the sugar miss in the state in the West and East Champaran districts, these are the largest sugarcane-producing districts of Bihar, followed by Gopalganj, Sitamarhi, Samastipur, Madhubani, Vaishali and Siwan.
The area under sugarcane cultivation was 2.69 lakh hectare in 2017-18, and it increased to 3.00 lakh hectare in 2018-19, according to the Sugarcane Development Department. The sugarcane production was 176.10 lakh MT in 2017-18 and 210.00 lakh MT in 2018-19.
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