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A 50-year sugar high

It’s a power equation that has persisted over 50 years — Maharashtra and its sugar daddies. And it’s based on solid numbers.

india Updated: Sep 30, 2009 01:11 IST
Ketaki Ghoge

It’s a power equation that has persisted over 50 years — Maharashtra and its sugar daddies. And it’s based on solid numbers.

About a fourth of the state’s Assembly seats are concentrated in the sugar belt of Western Maharashtra and parts of Marathwada and north Maharashtra.

And even today, half the state’s ministers — 13 of 27 — control sugar cooperatives, including Chief Minister Ashok Chavan and Home Minister Jayant Patil.

“Sugar cooperatives have for long thrived on political patronage and politicians thrived on this ready votebank,” said B. Venkatesh Kumar, a political scientist with the University of Mumbai. “Historically, Maharashtra has been at the forefront of the cooperative movement aimed at public good. Over time, Congress politicians used these cooperatives to further their base in the state.”

The power of the sugar lobby stems, again, from numbers.

In a cooperative, every farmer is a stakeholder and all members are assured of decent rates and a market for their produce.

Naturally, if the head of the cooperative then decides to stand for election, he can depend on the farmers’ votes. After all, if he wins, they stand to gain too. Also, they cannot afford to go against him since their interests are looked after by him.

This creates ready votebanks of about 20,000 people per cooperative.

Owning a cooperative also means having considerable control over local bodies like agriculture produce marketing committees (present in every tehsil) and credit cooperative societies and banks. This expands the ready votebank from the thousands to the lakhs.

With the rest of the local economy dependent either directly or indirectly on sugar and allied industries, it becomes hard for anyone to defeat this candidate, unless he owns an even bigger cooperative.

The first sugar cooperative was founded in 1950, a full decade before Maharashtra came to be. So, when the state went to the polls for the first time, the barons were primed and ready.

And with time, they grew stronger, turning from local honchos into some of the most powerful political dynasties in the state — like the Pawars, Patils and Vikhe-Patils.

Their rise, in turn, made the cooperatives stronger as they pumped in sops and incentives.

However, five decades after the first co-op was set up, the deal is turning sour. Fattened by years of government subsidies, many of the state’s sugar factories have become corrupt and mismanaged.

And sugarcane, due to the cycle of glut and drought, can no longer guarantee great returns for farmers.

The result: Most sugar farmers are growing disenchanted with their sugar barons.

In the Lok Sabha polls, for instance, Raju Shetty, a leader of cane-cutters and small farmers, won the election against NCP MP Nivedita Mane, the daughter-in-law of established sugar baron.

“The Congress and NCP can no longer depend on the sugar-rich regions for favourable results,” said Ratnakar Mahajan, executive chairman of Maharashtra’s Planning Board, which prepares the state’s annual development plan.

What could tilt the scales against the ruling alliance further is the delimitation, which has redrawn constituency borders based on the latest census, deleting some seats entirely and merging others.

For the sugar barons, this is bad news on two fronts.

Some senior leaders and sugar barons have lost well-nurtured constituencies and must start afresh — or fight other sugar barons in case of merged constituencies.

Worse still, the delimitation has finally given the overcrowded urban areas the political weightage they deserve, giving them the power to call the shots in the near future.

Over 42 per cent of the state’s population now lives in the towns and cities — a figure that is expected to rise to 50 per cent by 2015.

Already, these areas will elect over 100 of the state’s 288 MLAs. With growing clout, urban Maharashtra will also stake a claim on the state’s leadership.

Will the sugar daddies manage to retain their control over Maharashtra?

The first indication will come on October 22, with the results of the state Assembly polls.