Sugar factories in Maharashtra should be rejoicing at the largesse from the centre. They will get around Rs 2,200 crores as an interest-free loan from the central government in a first tranche of a total loan of Rs 6,600 crores. The interest burden of this ‘interest-free’ loan is over Rs 2,750 crores (on Rs 6,600 crores, 5 years repayment period with a 2 year moratorium) providing a bonanza to sugar factories.
While this is claimed to being done so that they can give better rates and pay back farmers’ arrears, farmer’s groups in the sugarcane belt are wondering how much of the money will actually come their way.
Suryakant Patil who heads an Indapur-based farmer’s group asked, “Why can’t the centre or state directly help farmers through commissionerates or other systems? Why should we be left at the mercy of the same sugar factory owners who already have a poor record when it comes to taking care of farmers’ interests?” He cited the instance of neighbouring Karnataka cabinet that has announced a bonus of Rs150 per tonne for farmers which will be given directly to the farmers through Karnataka state sugar commissionerate.
Sugarcane farmers have been wary of outfits like Swabhimani Shetkari Sanghatna (SSS) and its chief MP Raju Shetty’s silence on this issue. Earlier, Shetty had alleged that farmers are being deprived of their rights because most sugar factories in the state are run by politicians from the Congress, NCP and the BJP. After his demand for Rs 3000 as minimum support price (MSP), he had withdrawn a bandh when the government set the MSP at Rs 2600.
Shetty told dna that he supported the government’s decision to route money via the sugar factories.“People should have the freedom to complain if they feel have been left out unjustly, but under the circumstances in Maharashtra this is the best way to reach out to farmers,” he insisted.
Sugar Director Sunil Pawar of the state sugar commissionerate, echoes the thought. “We have chosen the best alternative for our state.”
A South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP) study during the drought last year had pointed out how in 2009-10, approximately 3,97,000 hectares (ha) of irrigated area in Maharashtra was under sugarcane. Area under sugarcane grew to 9,70,000 ha in 2010-11 and then to 10,02,000 ha by 2011-12. “When grown on 16% irrigated area, sugarcane used 76% of all water available for irrigation. Not only does it capture maximum water resorces, it results in water logging, salinity and severe water pollution by sugar factories,” it says. Incidentally, at 209, Maharashtra has the largest number of sugar factories in India.
Though sugarcane is the most water-intensive crop grown in Maharashtra, it is grown in drought-hit regions which receive highest central aid for drought relief. The worst offender — Solapur district includes Union agriculture minister Sharad Pawar’s parliamentary constituency.
Water rights activist Parineeta Dandekar of the SANDRP commented, “More and more area is being sought to be brought under sugarcane in what can only be a recipe for disaster.”