Protesting sugarcane farmers fear being elbowed out of public viewThe farmers from the Tarai have been holding a sit-in to demand payment for their crops sold to sugar mills.
Sugarcane farmer Shyam Babu Sah from Sarlahi gets up early in the morning and joins the sit-in at Maitighar Mandala like he has been doing everyday for nearly two weeks. He and dozens of other farmers from the Tarai have come to the nation's capital in desperation as sugar mills have not paid them for their sugarcane crops for years.
The farmers, used to the warm climate of the Tarai plains, have been braving the shivering cold of Kathmandu to push the government to get their money from the mill owners. Some of them are living with relatives while others are forced to sleep in the open in the bitter weather.
On Friday morning, Sah arrived at the Mandala as usual and was stunned to see three former prime ministers and a whole bunch of party workers already occupying the protest site.
The former prime ministers Pushpa Kamal Dahal, Madhav Kumar Nepal and Jhala Nath Khanal and their comrades were there to demand that they be allowed to form their own government after the ruling party split following months of wrangling.
“We fear that the unfolding political situation will overshadow our protest,” said Rakesh Mishra, patron of the Sugarcane Farmers Struggle Committee, an ad-hoc panel formed to pressurise the government to make the sugar mills clear outstanding payments to the farmers.
"Our protest is not driven by politics,” he said. “We fear the government will not pay attention to the farmers. As the Oli administration has announced that polls will be held in April and May, we doubt the government will alienate the sugar mill owners who bankroll their election campaign,” Mishra told the Post. “Now the situation is not in favour of the farmers.”
Parliament was dissolved on December 20 following a prolonged power struggle in the ruling party that has pushed the country into another political crisis. With the country going through a political upheavals, there is little hope that the demands of the farmers will be heard or met, said Mahato.
But the 42-year-old sugarcane farmer Sah is adamant. “Our protest will not be affected by changes in the political condition. We are here to get our hard-earned money. “We eke our living from sugarcane farming,” he said.
According to Sah, Annapurna Sugar Mill of Sarlahi has owed him Rs588,489 for six years. He says he is not going to budge until he gets his money.
“We depend on the money we earn from growing sugarcane to pay our children's school fees, buy farm materials, repay bank loans and buy kitchen utensils. Our sugarcane crop is our only source of income. Imagine what happens to our family when we don't get our money for years,” said Sah.
Sah received Rs82,000 recently from the sugar mill. "But that is less than 20 percent of what the mill has to pay me," he said. “We are here to protest although the time for planting winter crops has already begun,” he added.
Farmers have been saying that the mill owners are not honest enough to show the actual amount that remains to be paid.
According to Ram Bilash Mahato, another sugarcane farmer, Annapurna Sugar Mill still owes him Rs50,000 to Rs60,000 even though it claims that it has paid off almost all the farmers.
“They don’t show us the account books,” he said. The sugarcane farmers have been charging that various mills owe them more than Rs900 million. But the mills say the combined outstanding amount is less than Rs550 million.
The agitating sugarcane farmers charged that the sugar mills had been trying 'to weaken the protest' by handing out small amounts and asking them to go home.
Ram Raya, secretary of the ad-hoc committee, said that sugar mill owners were providing accommodation to some of the farmers in a bid to break up the protest. “They are planning to disperse the farmers from the protest site by saying that they will pay all the money,” he said.
“It’s nearly two weeks since we started the sit-in, but the government has only been inviting us for talks instead of taking action against the mills for non-payment,” said Mishra.
“We are suffering extreme hardship sitting out in the cold, but the government is not becoming serious,” he said, adding that some of the farmers had started falling sick.
The government asked for 21 days' time to make the mills to clear their outstanding payments. “We have agreed to that, but what if the mills fail to keep their promise?” Mishra said.
Sugar mills say that they have started depositing the money in the farmers' accounts, but the farmers say that there has been only very small deposits
Birendra Kanodia, owner of Mahalaxmi Sugar Mill in Sarlahi, said that they had already cleared their dues. “I don’t have a single penny owed to the farmers,” he said. “And if they say that the mill still owes them money, they can file a suit.”
Mishra said, “The mill needs to pay the farmers Rs471 per quintal of sugarcane, but it has paid only Rs435.” The mill has not paid the government subsidy of Rs25 million, he added. But Kanodia said that the remainder is the subsidy which should be paid by the government.
“We are here to get our money. No matter what the political situation is, we will not move,” said Sah.