Belagavi: It’s harvest time, but on Tuesday morning, Manje Gowda from Karnataka’s Hassan district is far from his field.
The 58-year-old sugar cane farmer is 500km away in the border district of Belagavi, considered the sugar capital of the state. He’s there with hundreds of other sugar cane farmers, blocking the National Highway No.4 used by the state’s legislators and bureaucrats proceeding to the Suvarna Vidhana Soudha in Belagavi to attend the state assembly’s monsoon session that commenced on Monday. About 3,000 police personnel have been deployed to clear the way for the VIP vehicles with flashing red beacons.
Why is Manje Gowda in Belagavi? The search for an answer must begin in the cane fields in Mandya, some 100km from Hassan, where a 60-year old debt-ridden cane farmer set his standing crop on fire and walked into the inferno on Thursday.
Two other farmers attempted suicide on the same day in Gulbarga district, about 750km north of Mandya. Within a fortnight, one more farmer jumped into a well his field in Mandya and another hanged himself from a tree in Srirangapatna, near Mandya.
Sugar cane farmers have been waging a long battle with mills and the state government, which owe them money for the crops purchased from them. Deep in debt and facing repayment pressures, desperation has driven many of them to suicide.
Sugar factories in the state reportedly owe farmers Rs.2,500 crore for the cane purchased in the last crushing season, apart from the Rs.1,000 crore dues from 2013-14. The growers complain mills pay them only a third of the state-mandated minimum price of Rs.2,500 per tonne, and apart from dues of the state government in the incentive offered at Rs.150.
“We tried everything to get our money, even gheraoed the sugar factory managing director one day. But factories are saying that they couldn’t sell the stock, so they cannot pay up,” said Gowda, who is also the Hassan unit president of the grower’s union Karnataka Rajya Raitha Sangha (KRRS).
Many of the 66 sugar factories in Karnataka—like in other sugar-growing states such as Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh—are run by politicians.
“We are left with no other option but to launch an indefinite rasta roko agitation,” said Kurubur Shanthakumar, president of KRRS, which is leading the agitation.
Some kilometers away from the scene of protests, at Suvarna Vidhan Soudha, the issue has become the rallying point for the opposition to paint the Congress-run state government as anti-farmer.
A united opposition, under Bharatiya Janata Party leader Jagdish Shettar and Janata Dal (Secular) leader H.D. Kumaraswamy, is cornering the government for its inadequate response on the issue. They have clearly said that the assembly session, primarily held to pass the state budget, will not function smoothly until dues are cleared.
As part of its damage control exercise, the government has seized about 8 lakhs tonnes of sugar from factories and said it expects to raise Rs.1,000 crore by auctioning it.
End of story? Not really. Both the opposition parties and the farmers’ unions want the government to pay dues first and recover it by auctioning stocks later.
“Many of us have outstanding loans to pay up, both from banks and moneylenders. The monsoon is here we need money for cultivation for the next season. We do not need promises anymore,” said Mallikarjun Jakathi, president of Karnataka Krishi Sangha, another union that has joined statewide protests, along with Bharateeya Krishi Sangha and North Karnataka Farmer’s Association, among others.
Protests are unfolding in several areas, and the security has been tightened everywhere in Belagavi. The police said one farmer, who was later found to carry a suicide note, gulped some poison from a bottle and had to be hospitalised. Last December, when sugar cane farmers held a similar protest in Belagavi, one had committed suicide.
“We have told our families not to wait for us,” said Shanthakumar.
“Clearly, the suicides show that a large number of farmers are unable to recover enough from the crop they cultivated,” said economist Venkatesh Athreya.
“There are several ways in which policies have hurt the sugar cane farmers. For one, all input costs including energy, transport, pesticides and seeds have gone up for them. Simultaneously, support prices are below cost of production,” he said.
According to him, the present minimum support prices (MSP) and the procurement arrangement are not benefiting growers. “The MSPs are not appropriate as it underestimate the actual cost of production. Earlier, an M.S. Swaminathan-headed committee proposed the entire cost of production and 50% profit as MSP but it has not been implemented,” he said.
Chief minister Siddaramaiah has held marathon meetings with his cabinet ministers and officials. He was expected to present a plan to tackle the crisis in the assembly later on Tuesday.
Meanwhile, another farmer committed suicide in the Haveri district in the state on Tuesday, reportedly due to debt, local media reported. In Shivamoga, a couple who attempted suicide has been admitted to the district hospital. The chief minister may have to make haste soon, before farm distress sours the state’s sugar bowl.