Bitter pillThe government must ensure that sugarcane farmers are paid in full immediately.
Most farmers often don’t have much reason to visit Kathmandu as they spend their lives toiling in their fields. More so for sugarcane farmers, who would have no reason to stay away from their fields in the thick of the harvesting season. But like last year, they are in the capital city again. The industrious farmers are leaving their work behind to visit Kathmandu as they are duped time and again—by the sugar mills they sell their crop to, and the government that is supposed to support them—as the factory owners fail to pay them their dues that run into hundreds of millions.
According to the Ministry of Industry, Commerce and Supplies, Shree Ram Sugar Mill owes farmers Rs260 million, Indira Sugar Mill around Rs40 million, Lumbini Rs80 million and Annapurna Sugar Mill Rs170 million. There are over 6,000 farmers in Sarlahi district alone that await payment for their sales. What is alarming is that the mill owners are paying small amounts to the farmers, especially to those who are more vocal, so that they stop asking for their payments and their joint agitation goes into disarray. Not to mention that the mills have failed to pay the farmers according to the schedule fixed during the previous negotiations.
Left in the lurch by the government after its repeated promises to help them, the sugarcane farmers are now torn between selling their product to the same non-paying mills or finding new mills that are more likely than not to turn out to be yet other defaulters. Such is the precarious position they are in as the KP Oli administration has done little to help their cause even after repeated requests and protests. The government has been too lenient when it comes to making the sugar mills accountable. The mills, meanwhile, continue to dupe the farmers even after making repeated promises that they would pay the outstanding dues that run into hundreds of millions.
Their demand is for the five-point agreement the sugar mill owners reached with the government in January 2020 to be honoured. They had planned to visit Kathmandu in March itself but held back due to the increase of the Covid-19 pandemic. The farmers would have no reason to leave their work behind and hold a march on Kathmandu if their demands had been met. Hundreds of farmers from Sarlahi had visited Kathmandu last year to pressurise the government to help them get the money the sugar mills owed them. The farmers had withdrawn their indefinite protests in a week following the government’s assurance that it would get the sugar mills to pay their outstanding dues by January 21. But most of the farmers remained unpaid.
It is high time the government addressed the demands of the farmers once and for all. It cannot expect them to stay silent even if the mills continue to default on the payment schedule. The government must take immediate steps to facilitate a negotiation between the farmers and the mills and rein hard on the mills that fail to clear the dues for years. Moreover, the government must ensure that it addresses the grievances of the farmers who say that the minimum support price fixed for this year, at Rs544.33 per quintal, is comparatively less than the expenses incurred. The government that swears by the slogan of ‘Prosperous Nepal, Happy Nepalis’ would do well to realise that the road to prosperity remains treacherous until the farmers, that form the backbone of the agricultural country, are paid for what they deserve and are owed.