Sugarcane farmers postpone second phase of protest over coronavirus fearsThe growers said they had lost faith in both the factories and the government for not honouring the deal reached between the three parties.
Sugarcane farmers, slated to arrive in Kathmandu on March 17 to hold the second phase of their protest programme to pressure mill owners to clear outstanding payments for their crops, have postponed their plan due to the coronavirus outbreak.
Rakesh Mishra, patron of Sugarcane Farmer Struggle Committee, said that the sugarcane growers from the southern plains decided to put off their planned agitation over virus fears.
“Many sugarcane farmers are convinced that the programme must be deferred,” he told the Post. The District Administration Office has also issued instructions not to hold gatherings so the committee decided to postpone the protest programme.
“A new date for the demonstration has not been fixed, but we hope that the outbreak will subside with the onset of the summer and hotter weather,” he said. "As soon as the situation normalises, the committee will fix a date, and the farmers will come to camp in Kathmandu for the next phase of the protest, bringing their bedding and cooking utensils with them."
Last December, hundreds of farmers from Sarlahi descended on the capital to exert pressure on the government to help them get the money owed to them by sugar factories.
The mill owners have repeatedly promised that they will pay the farmers in instalments, but the farmers said they had last faith in both the factories and the government for not acting according to the agreement reached between the three parties.
Sugarcane farmers had withdrawn their indefinite protest on January 3 following the government’s assurance that it would get the defaulting sugar mills to pay their outstanding dues by January 21. But more than a month has passed, and the farmers still have not received their money.
According to Mishra, they were all ready to hold the second phase protest in Kathmandu, and many farmers had already booked their bus tickets. “The farmers are worried as they are deep in debt, and the interest charges are piling up,” he said.
They received only some of the money owed to them after the last protest, and there is still a large amount of outstanding payments, said Rajesh Yadav, member of the committee.
Mishra told the Post that 11 committee members would arrive in Kathmandu and meet the industry minister to ask him why the agreement reached in January had not been honoured.
Kapil Muni Mainali, president of the Nepal Sugarcane Producers Federation, said that Annapurna Sugar Mill, Shreeram Sugar Mill, Lumbini Sugar Mill, Mahalaxmi Sugar Mill and Indira Sugar Mill together owe around Rs800 million out of the more than Rs1 billion in outstanding payments for the farmers' crops.
On January 22, the government froze the financial transactions of Annapurna Sugar Mill, Mahalaxmi Sugar Mill and Indira Sugar Mill that have the highest debts to the farmers.
The Rs1.33 billion grant provided by the government for the fiscal year 2018-19 has been sent to the Financial Comptroller General Office.
Mainali said that around Rs20 million from the previous fiscal year's grant had still not been received. “We will talk with Agriculture Ministry officials about the remaining grant which was sent to Indu Shankar Sugar Mill and Himalayan Sugar Mill,” he said.
Dhurba Ghimire, joint secretary at the Ministry of Industry, Commerce and Supplies, said that they were holding discussions with the Energy Ministry about the outstanding payment of Annapurna Sugar Mill.
Lumbini Sugar Mill has promised to pay the farmers after selling its land, and the ministry has been talking with the Department of Land Reforms to facilitate the sale.
Last June, the then minister for industry, commerce and supplies Matrika Yadav had warned mill owners that they faced arrest if they did not pay the farmers on time.
According to the federation, there are around 100,000 farmers engaged in commercial sugarcane farming in 15 districts, including 15,000 farmers in Sarlahi district alone.