In UP's Sugarcane Belt, Anger Over Farmers' Dues May Influence Electoral Outcome

The delay in receiving their dues has burdened many farmers with debt. Farmers say though the Adityanath government made some last-minute moves to release the payment, the problem is perpetual.

Listen to this article:

Lakhimpur Kheri/Sitapur: To walk into a sugar mill in the Terai region is like entering the world of woe and restlessness that farmers in the region experience. Farmers line up with their loaded tractors to sell their sugarcane crop at the mill, even as almost everyone complains about not having received their payments since January last year.

“You may say we have come here to sell but we are here to merely deposit our crop at the sugar mill. We have no idea when our payments will come,” says Ram Kishore Verma, a sugarcane farmer who tills around five acres of land and sells his crop at the Bajaj Hindusthan sugar mill at Khambar Khera in Lakhimpur Kheri.

A sugar mill of the Bajaj Hindustan Sugar Limited in Khambar Khera, Lakhimpur Kheri. Photo: Ajoy Ashirwad Mahaprashasta/The Wire

Such is the state of almost all farmers in Lakhimpur Kheri, which is part of the state’s sugarcane belt. For over four years, they say that their payments have not been done in a timely manner. In Lakhimpur Kheri, payments have been delayed for over a year. A group of farmers staged dharnas at different mills of the region for more than a month recently, following which the mills released a small part of the dues.

Says Pankaj Yadav, also in the queue outside the mill, “In Lakhimpur district, farmers have received only 40% of their payment. 60% remains. Agriculture has become a liability for us. My last payment came on January 12 last year.”

Most who were present at the mill spoke about their rising debts. “We are mostly small and medium farmers here, and all of us are neck-deep in debt, hoping we would clear them when our payments come,” said Yadav, as Verma adds that even the big farmers have taken huge loans from the market but are better off as they also have other businesses.

The lack of adequate institutional loans means most farmers turn to informal sources at heavy interest rates. They expect that the higher return rates for sugarcane will eventually be able to cap their losses. However, payment delays have worsened their situation. By the time they get their dues from the mills, farmers have little to spare after clearing their loans.

These traditional agriculturalists in the Terai region, who had a good run during the green revolution, are staring at a future where they see no hope. For more than a decade, the sugar mills, which are supposed to pay the farmers for the crop, have themselves shown huge losses and debt.

The state government does not buy sugarcane directly, like it does with paddy and wheat. But it mediates the purchase and sale of sugarcane in Uttar Pradesh and fixes a rate for it after considering sugar prices in the market and input costs of the mills.

The sugarcane committees formed by the state government issue tickets for farmers to sell their crop at the nearest mill, because of which a sugarcane farmer is bound to one particular mill. This has created a situation in which farmers’ incomes are dependent on the fortune of the mill to which she sells her crop.

A farmer removes dried grass from his sugarcane field in Muzaffarnagar. Photo: Anindito Mukherjee/Reuters/File

Over the last few years, farmers who sell at the Bajaj Hindusthan mills in Lakhimpur Kheri have struggled to get their dues. Most of the farmers with whom The Wire spoke said that they haven’t received their payments for over a year. Following a protest by sugarcane growers of the region, the BJP government led by Yogi Adityanath decided to give Rs 1,000 crore in two tranches to the mills to clear some of the dues in early January – days ahead of the assembly poll schedule was announced.

The state government took an indirect route to address the sugarcane farmers’ concerns. The Bajaj Group’s sugar mills together owe over Rs 2,361 crore in dues. However, the company has been saying that it has defaulted on its liabilities to farmers because the state-owned Uttar Pradesh Power Corporation (UPPCL) – which buys electricity produced by the Bajaj Group’s Lalitpur plant under a power purchase agreement – hasn’t paid the company on time. Thus, the Adityanath government approved a proposal to route Rs 1,000 crore out of payments that should have been made to the Lalitpur power plant to the 14 Bajaj Group’s sugar mills to clear the outstanding sugarcane dues to farmers.

The farmers are relieved by the move but aren’t particularly happy. “Delay in payments is a perpetual problem. The Adityanath government had five years to address our concerns but it woke up only before elections,” said Jafar Khan, a resident of Gola, Lakhimpur Kheri.

Anger against the BJP-led state government is palpable in the Terai region dominated by sugarcane growers. “Mayawati during her tenure increased sugarcane prices by almost Rs 125. Akhilesh Yadav too increased it by around Rs 75. Adityanath had promised us the moon but increased sugarcane prices only by Rs 25. Even this spike happened last year, as elections were approaching. He sat on our demands for most of his tenure,” said Dheeraj Saini, who had come to sell his crop at the Khambar Khera mill.

He added that Mayawati’s tenure was the best as far as sugarcane payments were concerned, while Adityanath’s was the worst. “During Mayawati’s time, our payments would come within a month. During Akhilesh, it would come within a year. In the last five years, we have waited more than a year to get our dues,” he said.

A sugarcane mill in Khambar Khera, Lakhimpur Kheri. Photo: Ajoy Ashirwad Mahaprashasta/The Wire

The anger of the Lakhimpur Kheri farmers may reflect in the electoral outcome. The BJP had swept Lakhimpur Kheri in the 2017 assembly polls, winning all eight assembly seats in the district. However, the ruling party may have to face perceptible anger in the region in next month’s election. The sitting MLAs face massive anti-incumbency in this flood-prone region, with farmers venting their anguish against them without hesitation.

One of the fallouts of such an electoral scenario is that a large section of sitting MLAs have been hankering to switch sides at the last moment. A Samajwadi Party (SP) leader in the region with whom The Wire spoke said that at least three of the sitting BJP MLAs are in talks with Akhilesh Yadav. Until now, only Bala Prasad Awasthi, the legislator from the Dharhara assembly seat in Lakhimpur Kheri, has managed to join the SP. The others were shown the door because of their allegedly poor reputation, the SP leader said.

A large number of Sikh farmers, who were at the forefront of the farmers’ agitations against the farm laws, also appeared determined to vote out the BJP in the upcoming polls. A car in the convoy of junior Union home minister Ajay Mishra’s son mowing down the agitating farmers last year, killing four, only worsened their rage against the BJP.

Says Ram Sharan Singh, a Sikh farmer in Lakhimpur Kheri’s Palia, “They did not help the farmers when we needed them most. Now when they come to ask for votes, we will show them their place.”