Sugarcane farmers refuse to sit for talks as the government dilly-dalliesHome and industry ministers show lukewarm response to farmers, with one promising ‘lawful action’ against mill owners and the other saying infiltration by ‘middlemen’.
Sugarcane farmers have been protesting in the Capital since Sunday demanding payment of outstanding dues from sugar mills.
The government response on Tuesday was a step down from its response in January when the farmers had travelled to the Capital making the same demand.
A meeting of four ministers chaired by Home Minister Ram Bahadur Thapa has directed district administration offices to take lawful action against mill owners who have not cleared the dues to the farmers.
“I cannot say what type of lawful action can be taken,” Chakra Bahadur Buda, spokesman for the Ministry of Home Affairs, told the Post when asked what “lawful action” meant. “Action will be taken as per the law which the concerned authorities, in this case the local administration, will take.”
According to Jyoti Baniya, a lawyer and consumer rights activist, the mill owners can be charged with fraud. But he is not hopeful that they will be charged.
“What can the police do when the federal government is so spineless against the mill owners?” Baniyan questioned.
As per the Criminal Code-2017, anyone found guilty of fraud can be jailed up to seven years.
But the word “arrest” was not used in Tuesday’s decision, Budha said.
In contrast, in January the Ministry of Home Affairs had ordered the arrest of sugar mill owners who had not cleared a large amount of dues owed to sugarcane farmers.
No one was arrested.
Minister for Industry, Commerce and Supplies Lekh Raj Bhatta, Minister for Agriculture and Livestock Development Ghanashyam Bhusal and Minister for Federal Affairs and General Administration Hridyesh Tripathi attended the meeting on Tuesday.
The agitating sugarcane farmers are not impressed with Tuesday’s decision. They say they will continue their peaceful protest till they get paid.
“We will continue our peaceful protest till the government clears our dues,” said Rakesh Mishra, patron of the Sugarcane Farmer Struggle Committee. “The government had taken responsibility last year that it would clear our dues.”
The government decision comes after the protesting farmers boycotted a meeting called by Minister Bhatta on Monday and Tuesday with mill owners.
Following the meeting on Monday, Bhatta at a press conference said that mill owners had claimed that the protesters do not represent sugarcane farmers.
“There is the presence of middlemen in the sugarcane farmers’ protest according to sugar mill owners,” Bhatta said on Monday.
On Tuesday, Annapurna Sugar Mill issued a statement saying there is an involvement of a middleman in the protest.
“Hari Shyam Raya, who calls himself a farmer and is leading the protest as secretary of the Sugarcane Farmers Struggle Committee, is a middleman and in the name of protest he has been negotiating with us,” reads the statement. “He has taken Rs33.39 million on different dates from us threatening us with protests.”
According to the statement, Raya bought receipts from the farmers at low rates and sold them to the mill owners at high rates.
The Post’s attempts to get in touch with Raya were unsuccessful.
But Mishra dismissed the accusations.
“When they reached an agreement with us we were farmers. Now we are middlemen,” he told the Post. “We have the people’s sympathy but such accusations are character assassination bid. They have done this because we refused to sit for talks.”
Jagdish Chandra Pokharel, an economist, said that blaming the farmers that they are middlemen further complicates the issue, reducing the trust in the government.
According to the Ministry of Industry, Commerce and Supplies, Annapurna Sugar Mill, Sarlahi has Rs170 million outstanding dues, Indira Sugar Mill, Nawalparasi Rs40.70 million, Lumbini Sugar Mill Rs80.41 million, and Shree Ram Sugar Mill Rs350 million.
“The sugar mill owners have said that they have around Rs550 million in outstanding dues,” said Narayan Prasad Regmi, joint-secretary at the ministry. “But sugarcane farmers have been saying that they have Rs900 million dues yet to be cleared.”
The ministry had asked the sugar mill owners to provide details of dues cleared by Tuesday.
But according to Urmila KC, spokesperson for the ministry, the ministry had not received any details as of 5pm on Tuesday.
During a meeting with the sugar mill owners on November 24, Minister Bhatta had instructed them to clear the outstanding dues owed to the farmers. The ministry has given a month’s time to sugar mill owners to make the payments. Sugar mill owners have said that the payments are being made gradually.
According to economist Pokharel, if the sugar mills are having problems in generating income due to the pandemic and are not being able to pay up, the government should facilitate them so that the farmers get their dues paid.
“But if the mills have sold the sugar and made money out of it and are not paying the farmers, it is not justified and this needs to be seriously addressed by the government,” he said.
Sugar mill owners buy sugarcane on credit from the farmers and are supposed to pay them after selling the sugar. However, the mill owners have been failing to pay them for a number of years as a result of which the debt has been increasing. With sugar mills limited in number, the sugarcane farmers’ vulnerability is exploited by the mill owners.
The protesting farmers say it is up to the government to make sure they get paid in any way possible.
“The government can make the payment from the Prime Minister Relief Fund or any other fund and can recoup it from sugar mill owners with interest,” said Mishra. “As the government failed to implement the agreement signed with farmers last year to clear the dues, our trust in the government has broken.”
According to Pokharel, former vice-chairman of the National Planning Commission, the issues of sugarcane farmers need to be solved by the government agency that fixes the minimum support price for the crop.
“Since the economy is down and the government has said agriculture will be prioritised, it should act like it is focussed on the sector,” he said. “Farmers plant crops with the money received and if they do not receive money on time then the farming cycle gets impacted affecting, the livelihood of the farmers.”
“The talks and agreement were already done last year and there is no point in repeating the same thing this year,” Mishra said. “We just want our outstanding dues. That’s all.”