Deadline arrives but sugar mills still owe farmers Rs800 millionFarmers have been duped by sugar mill owners in the past but this time they were betrayed by the government too, they say.
Earlier this month, when the government promised sugarcane farmers from Sarlahi that their dues would be cleared in three weeks, they didn’t have much to say—except hope that the authorities would keep their word. But as the weeks passed with only a few payments cleared, their hopes started to fade. On Tuesday, January 21, the day of the deadline, farmers were still owed over Rs800 million, and the government had no answers.
Of the total Rs1 billion owed to farmers by various sugar mill owners, they were paid just Rs150 million. Lekhraj Bhatta, the minister for industry, commerce and supplies, said that his ministry will assess the overall progress made so far on Wednesday and then decide on the course of action.
But farmers had seen this coming ever since the deal was struck, given that this is not the first time sugarcane farmers have been duped by sugar mill owners. Since the government rarely takes punitive action against sugar mills who fail to pay farmers for their crops, farmers, who usually take out bank loans to grow sugarcane, are at the receiving end.
Kapil Muni Mainali, president of Nepal Sugarcane Producers Federation, said that every time the government reaches an agreement, it just raises false hopes among farmers.
“Each time the deadline arrives, officials say sugar mills owners have gone out of contact,” Mainali told the Post.
According to ministry officials, Mahalaxmi Sugar Mill, Annapurna Sugar Mill, Shreeram Sugar Mill and Bagmati Sugar Mill have been the biggest defaulters for years. Some of the 100 farmers who marched to Kathmandu in December demanding their payments have not been paid for three-four years.
Babu Lal Ray from Ramnagar in Sarlahi told the Post last week that he had received a foreclosure notice from his bank for not repaying a loan he had taken three years ago.
Annapurna Sugar Mill owes Ray Rs275,000. The 67-year-old farmer has so far repaid Rs 500,000 to the bank and had hoped to pay back the remaining loan with the money from the mill. He never received the money he was owed, said Ray.
Annapurna Sugar Mills owes more than Rs420 million to farmers and has so far only paid Rs 30 million.
Government officials said the mill operator has gone out of contact, but farmers do not believe them.
According to Mainali, government officials are complicit in defrauding the farmers.
“Why would they pay millions of rupees to the poor farmers when they can easily lobby with politicians and government officials by paying a certain amount?” Mainali told the Post. “We don’t have much hope from this government, which was said to be the strongest in years.”
With the government doing nothing to ensure their payment over the past three weeks, farmers are unsure of what to do next.
“I am in big trouble as the bank has started sending me notices to pay back the loan,” a distraught Ray told the Post. “How will I pay my loan when I have not received my payment?”
According to Mainali, Annapurna Sugar Mill, Mahalaxmi Sugar Mill, Bagmati Sugar Mill, Indira Sugar Mill and Lumbini Sugar Mill have all yet to clear their dues.
Mahalaxmi owes farmers Rs100 million, Lumbini Rs100 million, Bagmati around Rs60 million, and Indira around Rs90 million.
Farmers who have sugarcane ready for harvest now have nowhere to sell their crops as sugar mills have shut up shop in order to avoid paying farmers.
According to ministry officials, Shreeram Sugar Mill has committed to “immediately pay farmers” while Mahalaxmi is in the process of obtaining a bank loan to pay farmers.
Rajesh Yadav, a sugarcane farmer from Sarlahi who is also a member of the Sugarcane Farmer Struggle Committee, accused the government of siding with sugar mill operators instead of listening to their plight.
Yadav said he had called Birendra Basnet, Minister Bhatta’s personal secretary, on Tuesday, only to be told that sugar mill owners still have two months to clear their dues.
“But the agreement says that the government will ensure that sugar mill owners make their payments by January 21,” Yadav told the Post.
In the agreement, the government had even said that sugar mill owners will be made to clear their dues even if they have to sell off their property.
Yadav is owed Rs1.2 million by sugar mill owners but has so far received only Rs300,000.
“We have been cheated by sugar mill owners for years, but this time the government also cheated us,” Yadav told the Post over the phone from Sarlahi.
According to Yadav, the struggle committee is holding a meeting on Wednesday to chart out future plans.
Minister Bhatta reiterated that his office is “serious about the sugarcane farmers’ issue” and that it will come up with “a new strategy” to address their concerns. But Bhatta took no responsibility and instead blamed “middlemen”.
“Middlemen have manipulated farmers,” Bhatta told the Post. He did not elaborate on who these middlemen were or how they had manipulated farmers.
Farmers say they are at their wits’ end.
“I don’t know what we are going to do,” said Yadav. “Maybe we will come to Kathmandu again to protest, but we are not sure if that will pay off.”