Plight of sugarcane farmers shows the priority government accords to themAlthough the government has now pledged to make sugar mills pay farmers their dues, analysts are sceptical whether the agreement will be followed through.
Tika R Pradhan
After a nearly two-week protest in freezing Kathmandu, the government, on Friday, finally signed a five-point agreement with sugarcane farmers, promising to clear all dues by next month.
Around a hundred farmers from Siraha had marched to Kathmandu after years of unpaid dues by sugar mill owners. Though this failure to pay farmers has been continuing for years, this protest was unprecedented. The public, and a section of politicians, were moved by the plight of farmers, dressed poorly for the cold weather, protesting for their rightful dues.
But this protest showcases how the state, over the years, has failed to secure the social and economic rights of citizens, especially the underprivileged and those from the margins, say former bureaucrats and political analysts.
“The tears of sugarcane farmers scratched the veneer of the political parties’ claim that the country is on the path to prosperity,” said Rameshore Khanal, a former finance secretary. “The problems of Nepali farmers are immense.”
According to Khanal, Nepal’s parties and governments have long protected industrialists and even given them seats in Parliament.
“In our country, industrialists have more leverage and the peasants and farmers are always the losers,” said Khanal.
The government of today is led by the Nepal Communist Party (NCP)—a unified party of two communist forces that have long claimed to champion the cause of the people.
The CPN-UML, whose leader KP Sharma Oli is now prime minister, joined parliamentary politics in 1990, arguing that Nepal was no longer a 'semi-feudal' state. Its ideologues and leaders had claimed that the country needed a socio-political transformation that could ensure human rights as well as people’s political, economic and social rights.
Other communists disagreed. Pushpa Kamal Dahal and Baburam Bhattarai claimed that the monarchy remained a symbol of feudalism and that unless it was overthrown, socio-political change was not possible. They launched a civil insurgency, which resulted in the deaths of around 17,000, and the disappearance and displacement of thousands more.
It was only after the 2006 people’s movement that the centuries-old monarchy was finally abolished and the parties came together to draft a new constitution that aimed to ensure economic equality, prosperity and social justice.
“But what’s written in the constitution and what the political parties have committed to has never been reflected on the ground,” said Govinda Sharma Poudyal, a member of the National Human Rights Commission. “Nepal is a signatory to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and has guaranteed the soci0-economic rights of people through the constitution but people have yet to enjoy their rights.”
Nepal has long survived on the backs of farmers with the agriculture sector still accounting for around 34 percent of the country’s GDP. Yet, farmers continue to remain at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder as evidenced by the recent protests.
Though the government has been saying that it supports sugarcane farmers, farmers say they have not received a single paisa in subsidy.
The government has set a subsidy of Rs 65.28 per quintal for sugarcane farmers, with the total subsidy amounting to Rs1.32 billion this fiscal year, but farmers like Raudi Mahato, who was one of those who travelled to Kathmandu to protest, told the Post last week they did not receive the subsidy this year either.
“As the subsidy is provided through the sugar mills, factory owners do not directly meet farmers; they send their staff, who often do not pay us,” said Mahato.
Mahato, who supports a family of 12, is owed Rs 400,000 by Annapurna Sugar Mills.
“I have not been paid for the last three years,” said Mahato, who has a loan of Rs300,000.
“If I don’t pay my creditors, they will seize my land, which will leave me with no option than to hang myself. I cannot see my children dying of hunger,” he told the Post in an interview last week.
As communists, the people naturally expect that ruling party would be on the side of the proletariat, but instead, the ruling party, just like all the other parties, caters to capitalists like sugar mill owners, said Narayan Man Bijukchhe, chairman of the Nepal Majdoor Kisan Party.
“The fake communists have turned capitalists,” Bijukchhe said. “They serve the interests of their class and not the poor.”
Former government officials agree with Bijukchhe, saying the ruling party has sold out on its communist ideals and has embraced capitalists.
“The communist party that is leading government is busy catering to the same people it once fought against, while ignoring the farmers, the group it once claimed to be fighting for,” said Deependra Bahadur Kshetry, former vice-chair of the National Planning Commission who also served as central bank governor.
Political analysts say that despite promises in the form of a written agreement, chances remain that sugar mill owners will get away without paying farmers, as they enjoy significant clout with parties from across the political spectrum.
“Political parties have close relations with mill owners and they are responsible for the plight of farmers,” said Chaitanya Mishra, a sociology professor. “There is an urgent need to change the way the governments and parties are working.”
Echoing Mishra, Rajendra Maharjan, a political commentator, said things still don’t look good for the farmers as there have been several similar agreements in the past and none was implemented.
“Political parties have been taking the approach of tiring the farmers out to abandon the issue,” said Maharjan. “It seems that the government has taken this approach just to weather the protest because it defamed them. The tears of the farmers depict the true picture of this country’s working class.”
At a time when the people’s civil and political rights are at stake, the incumbent government is unlikely to safeguard the social and economic rights of peasants.
“For politicians, ordinary people and farmers are just their voters,” said Khanal.