Sugarcane Farmers Caught in a Complex Web of Negligence in Eastern UP

Unpaid dues, closure of sugarcane mills and unharvested crops are just a few of the problems that continue to plague sugarcane farmers.

Despite raising the plight of sugarcane farmers before the 2014 Lok Sabha and 2017 assembly elections, the BJP has failed to address them adequately while being in power in the state as well as the central government.

Sugarcane farmers in Uttar Pradesh are still owed Rs 10,626 crore in dues. In many areas, the crop is yet to be harvested.

In Gorakhpur district, sugar mills are being run under the risk of poor recovery. In Kushinagar, one lakh quintals of sugarcane still stand in the fields.

There is considerable visible anger amongst sugarcane farmers due to these circumstances. Nine Lok Sabha seats in the Gorakhpur area went to polls on May 19. On that day, sugarcane farmers, disappointed over the closure of sugar mills and the lack of demand for sugarcane, took trucks full of produce to polling booths to stage a protest.

Despite attempts by officers to assuage them, the farmers refused to be placated, and in the end, eight  were arrested. There has hardly been another incident like that in any election.

These farmers belonged to Nauka Chhapra village of the Kasaya assembly constituency in the Kushinagar parliamentary constituency. Their sugarcane falls under the reserve area of the Ramkola Punjab sugar mill, but the mill was unable to purchase their sugarcane.

At the end of April, officers allocated two lakh quintals of sugarcane from the Ramkola Punjab sugar mill area to the New India sugar mill. When the farmers of Nauka Chhapra reached the sugar mill on May 16 and 17, they were greeted by a closed doors and a sign that said “No Cane”.

The farmers were told that the mill would only be restarted when 20,000 quintals of sugarcane would become available. In the extreme heat of May, the farmers, angry at having their yield refused, went along with a hundred trucks of sugarcane directly to the polling booths on the night of May 18.

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Polling was delayed by two hours due to the protesting farmers. In the end, eight farmers were arrested and then polling began.

The farmers – Jagdish Singh, Parshuram Singh, Rudra Pratap Singh, Ravindra Yadav, and Ram Vinod Singh – said that they had been taking their yield to the sugar mills for three days without any success. They were told that the sugar mills have been closed. When the farmers demanded that mills be reopened, they alleged they were misbehaved with.

For that reason, the farmers decided to demonstrate their dissatisfaction via democratic means.

A day after this incident, farmers, angry at the fraud in the distribution of sugarcane procurement slips, threw stones at the Siswa sugarcane union office in Maharajganj.

Farmers Lal Bahadur, Indrasan, Jalaluddin, Shankar, Kamalavati, Nikkam, and Santosh Mall claimed that they have not been able to receive the sugarcane procurement slips even as their sugarcane dries in the fields.

A fortnight after these two incidents, the Siswa sugar mill of Maharajganj shut shop. Except for the Ramkola Punjab sugar mill in Kushinagar, all other remaining sugar mills have been shut. The farmers, meanwhile, complain that their crops are still languishing in the fields.

The district sugarcane officer in Kushinagar, Ved Prakash Singh, said that one lakh quintals of sugarcane still remains in the fields in Kushinagar. The government has issued a directive that mills cannot be restarted until all the sugarcane has been collected. He conceded that sugar extraction has been poor, only 7-8%, due to the June weather.

The sugarcane procurer at the Dhadha sugar mill, D.D. Singh, said that they closed the mill on May 17 due to not having any sugarcane, but once the Ramkola Punjab area sugarcane was allocated to them, they had to run the mill until the end of May.

Of the 10 mills in Kushinagar, five, Chhitauni, Kathkuiyan, Padrauna, Ramkola, and Lakshmiganj, are closed. Of the five mills in the Devariya district, four, Devariya, Gauribazar, Baitalpur and Bhatani, are closed.

In the Gorakhpur district, the mills of Dhuriapar and Sardarnagar are also closed. The UP government replaced the closed Pipraich sugar mill with a new sugar mill in Gorakhpur, thanks to which sugarcane processing has started again.

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The two sugar mills of Maharajganj, Farenda and Ghughli, were already closed. This year the private sector JHV Garauda sugar mill also shut down and there is no mill in the Siddharthnagar district. In the Itava assembly area in 2003, a plan was formulated to construct a mill in Bhilauri, but nothing has happened since.

In the Santkabir Nagar district, there was only one mill, the private sector Khalilabad sugar mill, which is closed now. There are five mills in the Basti district, of which the Basti and Walterganj mills are closed. A new mill has become operational at the site of the old, now closed, mill in Munderva.

The private sector mills Babhanan and Rudhauli are in operation. In this way, in the Gorakhpur-Basti region, 17 of the 28 sugar mills are closed.

In May 2008, the Mayawati government sold 27 sugar mills of the Uttar Pradesh State Sugar Corporation. Of those, there were 11 sugar mills from six districts in the Gorakhpur-Basti area. Out of all the sugar mills that were sold, only two – Sisva and Khadda – are still operational. The rest have been shut down closed. In Gorakhpur, the Farmer Cooperative Sugar Mills Limited of Dhuriapara has been closed since 2007.

For an entire year, there was an agitation that demanded that the closed sugar mills of Kushinagar and Deoria be reopened. The Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU) Bhanu protested for 63 days demanding the reopening of the Lakshmiganj sugar mill of Kushinagar.

The former president of the union, Brajendra Mani Tripathi, held a year-long protest to reopen the Baitalpur sugar mill of Deoria and even contested elections from Deoria as an independent candidate to highlight this issue.

A farmer carries cut sugarcane on his motorcycle through a field outside Gove village in Satara district of Maharashtra. Credit: Reuters

A farmer carries cut sugarcane on his motorcycle through a field outside Gove village in Satara district of Maharashtra. Photo: Reuters

BJP’s promises vs reality

While campaigning for the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, Narendra Modi had, during an election rally in Padrauna, had raised the issue of the closed sugar mills and promised that the mill would be reopened within 100 days of him being elected.

The BJP won the 2014 elections and Narendra Modi was elected prime minister. Then, in the 2017 assembly elections, the BJP raised the issue of the closed sugar mills again.

The party also raised the issue of the compensation given to sugarcane farmers and promised that farmers would receive their payments within 14 days of offloading their sugarcane to the mills.

Also read: After Farmers’ Week-Long Seize of Shamli Sugar Mill, Case Registered for Non-Payment

BJP chief Amit Shah promised in a meeting in Chauri Chaura that the Sardarnagar mill would be reopened and farmers and mill workers would receive the payments that were due.

But despite being in power in Delhi and in Lucknow, the BJP forgot about its promises. While Yogi Adityanath had allocated money for the construction of two sugar mills in his district, and the mills were subsequently constructed, it did not help the sugarcane farmers much because the construction was finished by the end of the sugarcane season.

Both mills were made operational for a few days for the sake of election campaigning, but afterwards, they were shut with “No Cane” boards hung at the entrances.

One of the promises the BJP had made in the 2017 assembly elections was that sugarcane farmers would receive their payments within 14 days of offloading their sugarcane. The party promised that sugarcane would be purchased on time and that farmers would receive good prices for their crop.

But the Modi-Yogi government has completely failed to live up to these promises. For that reason, in all the campaign meetings and rallies, both Modi and Adityanath evaded questions regarding the issues of sugarcane farmers.

Adityanath has spoken about the two mills opened in Pipraich and Munderva, but has remained silent regarding the issue of purchasing sugarcane and paying farmers their outstanding dues on time.

The prime minister held meetings on May 12 in Kaptanganj of Kushinagar and Rudrapur of Deoria but did not say a word about the promises he had made in 2014.

In 2017, both Amit Shah and Adityanath had criticised the Akhilesh Yadav government about the money owed to sugarcane farmers on several occasions. At that time, Rs 5,000 crore was outstanding. And now, as of June 6, sugarcane farmers of the state are owed Rs 10,626 crore and BJP’s ministers and spokespersons are doing their best to evade questions on the issue.

In the district of Kushinagar, where farmers protested, 25% of the payments, on the part of five sugar mills, are still due. The sugarcane incharge of the district Ved Prakash Singh said that the five mills of the district have only processed 390 lakh quintals of sugarcane this season.

One lakh quintal sugarcane drying in the fields

The sugarcane processing season lasts only until mid-April, but because of poor government policies, mills have been forced to run until now. The government was afraid that the farmers’ anger would negatively affect the election outcomes.

Sugarcane surveys have not been conducted properly in eastern UP, which is why there is no accurate data about the total area in which the crop is grown. More sugarcane was planted this year, and the yield was also good. Just as in Kushinagar, the planting area for sugarcane went up by 20,000 hectares.

Also read: Angry Farmers Block Railway Tracks in Muzaffarnagar Over Unpaid Sugarcane Dues

Sugarcane was planted on a total of 94,000 hectares in the district. Despite knowing that the planting area has increased and the yield is good, the government did not purchase sugarcane on time or arrange for its processing and instead shut down the private sector JHV sugar mill in Maharajganj.

Representative image of a sugarcane farmer. Credit: Reuters

Representative image of a sugarcane farmer. Photo: Reuters

This mill owes farmers Rs 46 crore for two seasons and its employees another Rs 16 crores. Farmers and workers protested against this. As a result of the protests, it was decided that the mill would restart on December 27 and slowly repay its debts.

The farmers wanted the mill to remain operational so that their crops could be sold. According to the agreement, the mill began preparations for processing the sugarcane, but suddenly a command came from Lucknow that the mill be closed and the 60 lakh quintal sugarcane in its possession be allocated to six other sugar mills. The farmers believe that the mill was shut because of some personal animosity between the chief minister and the management of the sugar mill.

Because of the sudden closure, the pressure on other mills increased. This is why, despite the processing period being extended by a month and a half, not all the sugarcane has been processed.

The purchasing of sugarcane in May and June, as opposed to earlier, has caused great loss to both farmers and sugar mills. The weight of the yield has fallen by nearly 30% due to the heat, which has been a source of distress for farmers as their payments have fallen.

On the other hand, the efficiency of sugarcane processing has fallen. An employee at a sugar mill said that efficiency was greater than 10% in March and April but now has fallen to 8%.

If mills do not buy the sugarcane on time, farmers are forced to sell their produce to the crusher at lower prices.

The government had set Rs 325 per quintal as the support price for sugarcane. But farmers are dissatisfied with that amount. They say that as the cost of sowing and harvesting has increased, they should be given at least Rs 450 per quintal for their sugarcane.

The farmers who were forced to sell their sugarcane at the crusher only received Rs. 150-200 per quintal. Sugarcane middlemen have used the plight of the farmers for their own benefit. They would visit farms, purchase sugarcane at low rates and then sell it to the mills at a higher rate.

Also read: How Harmony Lost Out: Voices from Western UP Over the Years

The sugarcane of Maharajganj was sent to Bihar, while sugarcane from Bihar was sold to mills in Kushinagar. The sugarcane farmers in the JHV mill area suffered especially. In order to clear their fields, they were forced to sell their sugarcane crop to middlemen at Rs. 70-100 per quintal.

The middlemen sold the sugarcane at the Kushinagar crusher for Rs. 150-180 per quintal. Had the crushers not purchased the sugarcane, the farmers would be even worse-off and would be forced to burn their crop to clear the fields.

Premchand had said in an essay in 1933,

“Mill owners are few in number. They can, whenever they want, get together and collectively decide the price at which sugarcane will be purchased. And that indeed happens. It is impossible for farmers to join together like that. That is why they live at the mercy of the mill owners.”

In another essay, Premchand praised the efforts of the sugarcane farmers of Gorakhpur and Basti to join forces:

“The mill owner’s need to purchase sugarcane is far more pressing than the farmer’s need to sell it. If farmers join together, they can force mill owners to come to their farms and fields to buy sugarcane, because although sugarcane can stand in the field for 10-15 days, a mill cannot be closed for even 1-2 hours.”

It has been 86 years since Premchand wrote this. The situation of sugarcane farmers is even worse than what it was then. Sugarcane stands in the fields and mills are shut. When the farmer protests, the police arrests him and throws him in jail.

Translated from the Hindi original by Karan Dhingra. 

Manoj Singh is a senior journalist based in Gorakhpur.