By Abhishek Jha for Youth Ki Awaaz:
The Uttar Pradesh government has decided to not increase the sugarcane prices for the third consecutive production year, according to reports. The announcement of the State Advised Price (SAP) has been delayed this season, which began in October last year, due to a tussle between the sugar mill owners and the farmers. While mill owners argue that they have been unable to profit owing to falling sugar prices (there was a surge in international sugar prices earlier in the season due to a decline in global output), the farmers complain that they have been languishing in debt due to non-payment of their dues by the mill owners and a low SAP (Rs. 280 per quintal).
Farmers under the banner of the Bhartiya Kisan Union (BKU) have, therefore, been holding protest demonstrations across several districts in the state. In Muzaffarnagar, where a by-election is scheduled for February 13, the farmers had been protesting since the 9th of January at the District Magistrate’s offices. The protest was called off on the 19th in anticipation of a larger agitation that is to begin on February 1.
I met the district president of BKU, Raju Ahlawat, in early January who told me that the Titawi sugar mill (Mawana Sugars) alone owes the farmers around 200 crore from the last year. The sugar mills in Khaikheri (Uttam Group) and Bhaisana (Bajaj Hindusthan Sugar Ltd.) owe the farmers of the district around Rs. 10 crore each, he said. However, this could not be independently verified.
There was a general sense among the farmers gathered that the SP government has failed not only in getting the dues paid but also in ensuring that the administrators function properly. Everybody repeated common allegations of corruption- in the distribution of relief, in setting up tube-wells, in measurement of the sugarcane they sell at the sugar mill.
Ahlawat also alleged that while they are fighting for an increase in the SAP and timely payment of arrears, the state government has started withholding part of the payment, which furthers their pecuniary problems. “We find through the newspapers that the farmers in Bundelkhand are committing suicide. A lot of farmers in south India commit suicide. Then we used to discuss among ourselves why the farmers are committing suicide. The cause of concern is that since the last year, even the farmers here have started committing suicide,” Ahlawat said after dismissing the World Trade Organisation as meant to “destroy” the farmers. At WTO’s Ministerial Conference held in Nairobi last year, India was seen to make concessions that could hamper domestic producers. “The crop that is produced, it is very expensive. First, the farmer takes a loan from the market, or the bank, or the lender to produce the crop. Then he gives it to the sugar mill. For a whole year, we do not get paid. The people from whom we borrowed money are at our door asking for money. They are right. If we borrowed money, we’ll have to pay them back. The farmer then is definitely in depression,” he explained, “because there is the daughter to be married, educated, the daily expenses.”
The Minister of State for Agriculture, Sanjeev Balyan, is from Muzaffarnagar and won the general election in 2014 from Muzaffarnagar. Do they talk to him? “We do talk to our minister,” Ahlawat said, “but he cannot order the state government even if he wants. He can only advise. Although he can do a lot, he hasn’t spent much time in the office and we do not want to point fingers at him.” They have, however, received the Rs. 6000 crore that was given as a loan to sugar mills for clearing arrears, but was transferred straight to the farmers’ accounts. Balyan had also visited the BKU protest in the nearby Shamli district. A week later, on January 23, Balyan, who was in Muzaffarnagar for the filing of the nomination of the BJP candidate (Kapil Dev Agarwal), laid the blame squarely on the state government. “The manner in which this government is functioning is not good,” he told YKA.
Yet Ahlawat was unequivocal in his opinion of what the farmers think of the Modi government. “The work they have done so far,” he says, “makes the farmer feel like he has been fooled.” Citing the land acquisition ordinances, he says that he would give the central government a score of zero for the work they have done so far. When asked about this apparent disillusionment, Balyan told YKA that the “central government is doing all it can” and listed the measures the central government had taken last year before excusing himself to meet his party workers.
The farmers’ problems have also had an impact on the zila panchayat elections. “Because this is the land of farmers, the land of Baba Tikait (BKU founder Mahendra Singh Tikait), it is obvious that all the zila panchayat members have the blood of a farmer. All the polling (for the post of Zila Panchayat Chairman) was anti-SP. It was not due to communalism or anything. Whoever was against the farmer has been served a lesson,” Ahlawat says, adding that if the SP government doesn’t learn its lesson now, it will lose the 2017 Assembly election. Interestingly, a local news report attributes the results to Balyan’s “skilful organisation”. He is also reported to have met the BKU chief Naresh Tikait. Both are accused in the 2013 riots cases. It is not surprising then there appeared to be only a couple of Muslim farmers in the agitation at the DM’s office.
When I met some more farmers in Sisauli on the 23rd (January), an elderly Rajpal Singh, who started a business in cement a couple of years ago to compensate for the losses incurred in farming, said, “Whether it be the country’s prime minister or the state’s chief minister, everybody claims to be a farmer. Let any one of them define a farmer for me.” He is dismissive of the BKU leaders too. “They (the politicians) take one (from the Union) with them. They pay that one person alone,” he said speaking of the Union leaders’ cosying up to political parties. “Farming is a 24-hour work,” he said, adding that no politician would be able to understand the work they do. He does hold the late Charan Singh in high esteem though.
The farmers’ problems in the district are what Yogendra Yadav said of the condition in Bundelkhand in a recent interview: “an unglamorous tragedy”. Rajkumar, for instance, said that he was working through fever and TB and had not had lunch till very late in the afternoon. Siddharth, another farmer I met in Sisauli, finds it difficult to pay the school fees of his children. He worries whether he will be able to ever send them to an engineering college that charge huge amounts for a single semester. This makes him think whether the SP government works only for Muslims.
Meanwhile, BJP politicians have been again making calls for a mahapanchayat in the district following the rape of an ASHA worker, asking for the National Security Act to be invoked against the accused. The “honour of mothers and daughters” was also what dominated most of the pep talk for BJP workers at their meeting on the day Kapil Dev Agarwal was to file his nomination for the coming by-election. The BKU had also lent support to the ASHA workers when they were at their sit-in protest at the DM’s office.
When the farmers aren’t paid, it leads to hooliganism and corruption, Rajpal Singh told me. The Srikrishna Commission report on the Bombay riots had similar things to say about the cause of the riots. Whether our politicians will take heed of that or let the situation deteriorate to reap votes, it should be anybody’s guess.