Mumbai: Typically, in November-December in Maharashtra, front pages of vernacular dailies and prime time slots at Marathi news channels are dominated by farmers’ agitations for higher prices for sugarcane—the most important cash crop in the state. Many a time such agitations turn violent.

In fact, the 2012 agitation was the most violent one in history with one farmer killed in police firing and at least 50 injured in various places across the state. The farmers managed to block the two most important national highways—Mumbai-Bangalore highway and Mumbai-Hyderabad highway—for nearly a week last year.

Maharashtra produces about one-third of country’s sugar and nearly three million farmers are engaged in sugarcane farming. Out of a 30-member cabinet in Maharashtra, 11 cabinet ministers control one or more sugar cooperatives in their home districts, some even own private sugar mills besides controlling the cooperative sugar factories.

This year, farmers’ organisation are demanding 3,500 per tonne of sugarcane while sugar factories are not ready to give more than 2,650 per tonne. The logic given by the lobby groups like Maharashtra State Co-operative Sugar Federation Ltd is that ex-factory prices of sugar are not more than 28,000 per tonne and, in such a scenario, they can’t offer more than 2,650 per tonne for sugarcane.

However, the farmers’ organizations debunk the claim of sugar cooperatives and allege that prices of sugar in Maharashtra are artificially kept low compared with the national level to ensure that a handful of politicians who control sugar factories and their trader friends pocket huge profits.

Referring to prices at which contracts were bagged by various traders to supply sugar to many state governments under public distribution scheme (PDS), they ask if private trader can get contract to supply sugar from governments of Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and West Bengal at an average price of 35,000 per tonne, why don’t the sugar cooperative factories in Maharashtra participate in tendering process of these governments?

The farmers’ organisations also point out that sugar may not be fetching more than 28,000 per tonne but these factories make enough money by selling molasses, alcohol and power produced from bagasse-based generation plants.

There is no end to the claims and counter-claims but the fact remains that the state government has failed to resolve the issue on the lines of Karnataka, another important sugar producing state. The southern state has created an independent regulator, headed by a retired high court judge in January this year, to oversee
the sugar industry.

This was done following recommendations to decontrol sugar business made by a committee under former Reserve Bank of India (RBI) governor C. Rangrajan in October 2012. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh constituted the committee. The committee also recommended that there should be revenue sharing between farmers and factories in a 70:30 ratio.

The farmer’s organization are ready to accept this formula, provided sugar factories bear the cost of harvesting and transportation. However, sugar factories are not ready for this proposal as they say it will make sugar manufacturing activity unviable.

Both agree that differences can be solved through negotiations but the Maharashtra government has failed to bring both parties to the negotiation table and resolve the issue. This can prove costly in the election year.

Tailpeace

Kaka Mala Vachva (Oh uncle, please save me) is a popular Marathi phase. Earlier last week, Nationlist Congress Party (NCP) president and Union agriculture minister Sharad Pawar, also known to be kaka or uncle because of his famous nephew and Maharashtra’s deputy chief minister Ajit Pawar, was approached by Uddhav Thackeray, president of Shiv Sena. Thackeray met Pawar with a request to help him to resolve the issue of suitable location for memorial of his father and Shiv Sena supremo Bal Thackeray.

Pawar senior and Thackeray senior had shared excellent personal rapport and they didn’t allow professional differences to muddle their personal relationship. If Uddhav is seen to be cosying with Pawar in an election year, political analysts say it may confuse voters and prove detrimental to the Sena’s future.

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