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Sugarcane growers’ struggle

ON November 19, thousands of sugarcane farmers gathered at Freedom Park in Bengaluru under the aegis of the Karnataka Rajya Raitha Sangha (KRRS) demanding that the government guarantee a minimum support price (MSP) for their crop. A day before this, 20 sugarcane-laden trucks barged into the premises of Suvarna Soudha, where the winter session of the Assembly is held, in Belagavi in north Karnataka, and dumped their contents there.

In a fit of pique, Chief Minister H.D. Kumaraswamy called the farmers “goondas”. The State government had promised an MSP of Rs.2,750 per tonne of sugarcane for 2017-18, but with sugar factories reneging on this payment, approximately Rs.1,500 crore still has to be paid to the farmers. To be fair to Kumaraswamy, his whole statement said: “Our farmers are tolerant and peace-loving. When I go to meet them [farmers] in villages, they remove their footwear, keep them aside and greet us. But what we witnessed recently is anarchy. Their attitude is similar to burglars. Our media friends beautifully highlighted how some tried to break into the Suvarna Soudha. Do you call them farmers? There is a limit to my patience. Those people who are behaving that way are not farmers. They’ve destroyed the integrity of farmers, they’re goondas.”

But sugarcane growers are seething about his use of the term “goondas”. Samboonahalli Suresh, president of the KRRS for Mandya district and a sugarcane grower, said that even though the Janata Dal (Secular) of Kumaraswamy has control over all the representative bodies, starting from the panchayat to the Member of Parliament in Mandya, “…he does not have any understanding or respect for farmers here”.

Karnataka is the third State, after Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra, in terms of area under sugarcane cultivation. It had 3.7 lakh hectares under cultivation in 2017-18, mostly in the districts of Belagavi, Bagalkot, Vijayapura and Bidar in the north and Mandya in the south. The area under cultivation in the State has doubled over the past two decades because of the lure of assured returns.

However, over the past decade, protests by farmers over payment of the MSP have become an annual feature. With the increase in the output of sugarcane and the fall in prices of sugar, factories do not honour the prices that have to be paid to farmers, leading to seasonal distress in the community. In 2015, for instance, Karnataka saw a spate of farmers’ suicides, the majority of them sugarcane growers.

There are around 65 sugar factories in the State, of which around two-thirds are private factories and the rest are managed by cooperative societies. A small number are run directly by the government. Around half of the sugar factories are owned by politicians, who also have an important role in the management of the cooperative societies that run the factories. This complicates the tussle between the government and the farmers’ body representing sugarcane cultivators.

A senior leader of the coalition government currently is Minister of Municipal Administration Ramesh Jarkiholi of the Congress. Jarkiholi, along with his brothers, two of whom are also MLAs, own a number of factories in Belagavi district. “It is their reluctance, as representatives of the sugar industry, to settle the dues that is the chief reason for the Chief Minister not taking a firm step in resolving the vexed issue of clearing the dues of farmers,” said a Congress MLA who did not wish to be named. The Jarkiholi brothers apparently owe the largest sum in dues to farmers. Other MLAs across parties have stakes in sugar factories and are preventing a resolution of the crisis.

The Bharatiya Janata Party is gearing up for a confrontation with the government in the winter session of the Assembly on issues such as the delay in the agricultural loan waiver promised by Kumaraswamy. But a robust intervention is not expected from them on behalf of the sugarcane farmers because several BJP members also own sugar factories. In fact, the BJP failed to ensure the transfer of arrears to farmers when it was in power between 2008 and 2013. Anand Reddy, president, South Indian Sugar Mills Association, refused to comment on politicians’ involvement in the crisis but said that the issue would be resolved soon.


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