Ahead of this year’s Cane Conclave, peasant leader and former MP Raju Shetti is touring the sugarcane-producing regions of Maharashtra and Karnataka. Swabhimani Shetkari Sanghatana’s annual event, the conclave has historically been a show of force for the farmers’ group, where it decides the course of action for the next grinding season.
Shetti spoke to The Indian Express about the conclave and farmers’ expectations of it.
What are the main challenges for sugar cane planters in view of the next crushing season? With sugar prices being good, the sugar industry is optimistic about the season, what about the producers?
One of the biggest problems facing sugar cane farmers in Maharashtra and Karnataka is damage to standing crops during flooding. Such a cane should be harvested at the earliest, so the cane conclave should decide on any move with this in mind. Our estimates show that along the border areas of Maharashtra and Karnataka, around 10 lakh tonnes of cane suffered damage in one form or another. The government has helped these farmers in any way, so we have to make sure that these farmers are not financially losers. The second big question for sugar cane producers is the decision of many mills to pay the FRP (fair and remunerative price) in installments. It is totally illegal and it will be an important issue in the conclave.
You recently completed a tour of all the sugar cane producing areas of the state. What are the main concerns at ground level?
The biggest problem for sugar cane producers is how the mills use the cane registration forms to obtain their consent to the partial payment of the FRP. Farmers are being forced into it without their knowledge and in some cases the mills threaten not to harvest the cane if the farmers do not sign it. During my tour, sugar cane growers have raised this issue on several occasions. They pointed out that sugar cane producers cannot benefit from zero-interest agricultural loan programs as they are repaid after one year. The culture itself stays between 14 and 18 months in the field. Now, if the PIF is paid in installments, why shouldn’t farmers also be allowed to repay their loans in installments?
Farmers and farm laws have been at the forefront of politics both in the state and in the center. What is the political atmosphere among the state’s farmers?
The state’s sugarcane farmers do not know which political party is talking about them. Niti Ayog, the central planning body, initially proposed to legalize the payment of the FRP in three installments. Back in the state, the biggest supporter of this initiative was Sharad Pawar, the supposed architect of the anti-BJP government Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA). Farmers don’t know who really speaks for them.
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Your defeat in the 2019 election saw the farmer movement lose a lot of momentum. How do you plan to recover this?
The farmers had turned on themselves. There was a large rift within the sugarcane farming community, which took two years to heal. The conclave of the cane will see the birth of a new peasant movement full of vigor and energy.