Another battle line is being drawn between the Centre, state government and farmer organisations in Maharashtra's politically sensitive sugar belt over the price of cane among other key demands ahead of crushing season.
In its 19th cane conference, the Swabhimani Shetkari Sanghatana under the leadership of Raju Shetti, former Member of Parliament, demanded that the cane farmers must get Rs 3,100 per tonne (for Kolhapur district, which has the highest mills as well as production) as Fair and Remunerative Price (FRP). The Union government has increased the price by Rs 10 from 2019-20's price and fixed it at Rs 285 per quintal for 2020-21, which translates to Rs 2,850 per tonne.
The crushing season is supposed to start in the state by November 15. There are 145 mills in Maharashtra, including private and cooperative ones. This year, the state is expecting around 900 lakh tonnes of crushing. The production of sugar from that would be around 100 lakh tonnes. The cane cutters have started moving towards the sugar belt of Western Maharashtra as well as North Maharashtra. But due to lack of clarity over the rates of cane, the farmer organisations are planning to launch an agitation.
"There will be a nationwide protest on November 5 for the increase in FRP. The state will also see a strong protest. We will not allow any mill to crush a single tonne of cane until clear words come from the government regarding our demands," said Raju Shetti in Kolhapur, Western Maharashtra.
Shetti has declared nine demands to be fulfilled by the government immediately:
1. Immediate FIRs against the directors of the sugar mills, which have not cleared the FRP bills of farmers. Also, state cooperative banks should give 90% payment of its loans to mills.
2. Maharashtra state government has declared Rs 10 thousand per hectre as compensation to farmers for the loss due to heavy rains. This should increase to Rs 25,000.
3. There should be uninterrupted power supply to farmers for 12 hours per day. The motors for lift irrigation should be charged at Rs 1.16 per unit.
4. Decrease in power charges in the lockdown times and waver of power bills of farmers for household usage during the lockdown period.
5. Clear MSP mention in union government's bills.
6. Start of a special fund on the line of carbon credit to farmers who are facing natural disasters frequently.
7. Sugar subsidy should be Rs 1500 per quintal and export should be allowed to 75 lakh tonne sugar. This is for the year 2020-21.
8. Immediate payment of the first instalment to farmers out of FRP. Increase of 14% to transport cost should be given at the end of the season.
The sugar industry has been witnessing volatile situation over the last few years. The cooperative sugar industry is a stronghold of the Congress and the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) in Western Maharashtra and Marathwada regions. They have been politically influential corners for the last forty years.
The BJP government tried to control the mills through its power in the state during 2014-19. Many bigwigs from the sugar industry joined the BJP on the eve of the state Assembly elections in 2019. But as the government changed, BJP's approach changed towards the industry and it reflected in the pending amount of export subsidy to all mills in Maharashtra. The amount has gone over Rs 6,300 crore, Raju Shetti mentioned as a point in his demands and asked the Centre to release the fund immediately.
This pending amount is crucial for the mills, especially in the backdrops of clearance of all bills by mills to farmers. In 2019, the state had seen flood in the sugar belt. So, farmers were already under distress. According to the Sugar Sangh of Maharashtra, the state's apex body of all mills, Maharashtra has seen crushing of 550.29 lakh tonne canes in 2019-20. The dues with mills by the end of April 2020 were Rs 14,055.27 Cr. But by the end of September 30, the bills increased to Rs 14,099.42 Crore. The extra amount is paid by some mills to their shareholder farmers as aid against the flood. Out of 145 mills in state, 134 have cleared the bill and 11 mills have a pending amount of Rs 69.51 Crore.
"The pending amount of export subsidy will help mills to start the season as well as make payments to cane cutters and cover transportation cost. The Union government will have to take a positive approach looking at the cooperative nature of sugar mills in Maharashtra," said NCP leader and state minister Jayant Patil. He is one of the strong voices for sugar mills in Maharashtra.
The current crisis of finance would only be solved if mills could divert sufficient amount of cane for ethanol production. Last year, the mills were given a target of 58 crore litres but could produce only 28 crore litres of ethanol. This year the target is set at 108 crore litres.
The agitation of November 5 would certainly put pressure on the state as well as the central government. However, farmers say they are expecting the governments to act before the situation escalates.