It was during brainstorming at New Delhi on Tuesday night that Congress deputy leader in the Lok Sabha Captain Amarinder Singh and his team of confidants decided to take on the Punjab government over dues to sugarcane farmers.
Among them was his close aide, sugar baron Rana Gurjit Singh. The next day, the script for a bitter war over sugar within the Congress was ready. Punjab Congress chief Partap Singh Bajwa and Rana Gurjit’s detractor ex-MLA Sukhpal Khaira held a press conference to announce gherao of two private sugar mills. The symbolism was not lost on the Amarinder camp, which incidentally issued a press statement announcing to hold a sit-in outside the residence of chief minister Parkash Singh Badal on Friday, days before Bajwa’s agitation against private sugar mills.
While addressing the dharna outside the CM’s residence, Amarinder made no bones about the fact that he was championing for the cause of private mills too. “The state has released Rs 90 crore of the pending Rs 180 crore and promised to release the remaining Rs 90 crore next month. But it is for the nine cooperative sugar mills in Punjab which are crushing only 30% sugarcane while 70% is crushed by private millers. Badal had solved the problem of 15% farmers only, while the fate of 85% farmers still hangs in balance,” Amarinder said.
MLA Rana Gurjit, the man behind the sugar agitation by the Captain, admits his mills are facing problems in paying sugarcane farmers. His son, Rana Inder Partap Singh, however, says they are crushing cane despite incurring losses. “But we may not be able to crush cane next year. The Punjab government should come forward to support farmers and its diversification agenda. We are in this business before my father entered politics,” he said.
Rana is not alone. A few private sugar mill owners said they are unable to service their loans and the loans have been declared as non-performing assets (NPAs) by banks. “Sugar prices have fallen owing to the glut. Other states such as Maharashtra and Karnataka have not announced a price for sugarcane higher than the Fair and Remunerative Price (FRP) of Rs 220 per quintal or given subsidy on lines of Bihar, Haryana and UP. If we are unable to pay farmers, we are willing to let the banks take over keys of our mills,” said a mill owner.
Sugarcane is more lucrative for farmers than wheat and paddy. Punjab has been luring farmers to diversify from wheat and paddy, and the acreage under it has gone up 5% this year to 1 lakh hectares.
Punjab has fixed the State Approved Price (SAP) of sugarcane at Rs 295 per quintal but not subsidised the mills. The Captain claimed Badal had cheated sugarcane farmers by announcing SAP at Rs 295 without ensuring if it can be paid. “Badal has passed on the entire burden on to the sugar mills,” he added.
But Congress legislative party leader Sunil Jakhar, who spoke before Amarinder at the dharna, later said the buck for nonpayment of arrears stops at the door of both private mill owners and the state government. “Irrespective of who owns the mill, we will also gherao private mills to ensure the farmers get their dues,” he said in reference to Rana Gurjit’s mills.