In the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) swept the region after promising to clear the sugarcane dues owed to farmers.(Bloomberg file photo)
In the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) swept the region after promising to clear the sugarcane dues owed to farmers.(Bloomberg file photo)

Lok Sabha elections 2019: Sugarcane may tilt the scales in west UP

In the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) swept the region after promising to clear the sugarcane dues owed to farmers, and its vote share was more than the combined votes polled by the Samajwadi Party (SP) and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), which are contesting in an alliance this time.
By Chetan Chauhan | Hindustan Times, Saharanpur/Baghpat
UPDATED ON APR 07, 2019 08:21 AM IST

In western Uttar Pradesh, sugarcane farmers hold the key to electoral success or failure, and it won’t be any different in the upcoming general elections. About 70% of the 15 million voters in western UP are directly or indirectly dependent for a livelihood on the sugarcane crop and can swing the result in the race for at least 18 of the 22 seats the region fills in the lower House.

In the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) swept the region after promising to clear the sugarcane dues owed to farmers, and its vote share was more than the combined votes polled by the Samajwadi Party (SP) and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), which are contesting in an alliance this time. The region will vote in two phases, on April 11 and April 18.

In the 2017 Uttar Pradesh assembly elections, the BJP again won a majority of the seats in western UP, but its vote share declined to about 44% from more than 50% in 2014, according to the New Delhi-based Trivedi Centre for Political Data, indicating that the SP-BSP alliance can be a formidable force this time around.

To be sure, the BJP-led governments at the Centre and in the states have done their bit for the sugarcane industry. On February 19, the central government introduced a minimum price of ~31 per kilogram at which millers can sell sugar, after domestic sugar prices fell below cost of production in 2017-18. Sugar production that year was about 30 million tonnes, about 4.5 million tonnes more than the country’s annual consumption, according to agriculture ministry data. The Centre also decided to build a 3 million tonne buffer stock of sugar, doubled import duty from 50% and decided to give a subsidy of ~55 per tonne and soft loans to sugar millers.

Uttar Pradesh’s principal secretary (cane), Sanjay Boosreddy, said the measures taken by the Centre and the state had helped in improving the liquidity of the sugarcane industry. Dues to farmers worth ~59,750 crore have been cleared in the last two years, the highest since 2007. “Of the ~35,463 crore of last year, we have paid more than 99.46%,” he said.

At an election rally in western UP’s Saharanpur town on March 25, UP chief minister Yogi Adityanath spoke extensively about what his government has done for sugarcane farmers. “Neither SP nor BSP was able to clear all dues of cane farmers. We have done it and have brought reforms that will ensure better price and timely payment for farmers,” the CM said. on Friday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said he has directed Yogi to clear all pending dues.

The BJP’s local unit is distributing pamphlets on what the party has done for sugarcane farmers. Saharanpur’s BJP farmers group head Advesh Rana said reforms in the sugarcane sector were benefitting all farmers and claimed that his party has “delivered on what it promised to farmers before (2017 assembly) polls”. The reforms include soft loans for sugar mills, single-window clearance for opening new mills and financial incentives for producing ethanol from sugarcane waste.

Not that sugarcane farmers are entirely happy. They are upset that outstanding dues in the current crop year have already mounted to more than ~10,000 crore and that the UP government has not increased the procurement price, called state advisory price (SAP), for the harvest season of 2018-19. The sugarcane crop year starts in November and ends in May-June.

Boosreddy said the sugarcane dues worth ~24,000 crore owed by factories for this crop year had been paid. “We are doing everything to ensure the millers release the payment. Around 80% of the millers have released most of the money,” he said.

Farmers queuing up with tractors full of sugarcane outside the mills in western UP acknowledge steps taken by the government to resolve their problems, but are upset at the government for not increasing SAP — the price at which the mills buy cane from them.

“A bag of the fertilizer now costs ~1,400 as compared to ~ 1,100 last year and price of electricity for the farm sector has also been increased from ~100 per month to ~150 per month. It is not fair to buy sugarcane at last year’s price,” said Ashok Kumar, a farmer outside a government sugar mill in Baghpat, from where the Rashtriya Janata Dal’s Jayant Chaudhary is contesting against sitting BJP MP Satyapal Singh.

Sari Tomar, a farmer in a queuing at a sugar mill in Shamli, which falls under the Kairana Lok Sabha constituency, from where SP-BSP candidate Tabassum Begum won a by-poll in 2018, recalled chief minister Adityanath’s promise before 2017 assembly elections that payment will be made within 14 days of procurement . Farmers have only been paid for the 2017-18 season, he said.

“His (Adityanath) promise kindled hope that we will get our money quickly. That has not happened,” he said. In Kairana, the SP and BSP had come together in 2018 for the first time since 1993.

Rakesh Kumar , a farmer in Baghpat, praises what the governments in UP and at the Centre have done for sugarcane farmers. “For the first time in a decade, all our pending dues have been cleared. Only money for the current period is pending, which we will get before the next crop cycle (that starts in September-October),” said Rakesh Kumar. In Shamli district, a small cane farmer, Sompal Singh, said the opening of new mills has ensured timely payment and reduced the time for selling their produce. “Earlier, we had to queue for six to eight hours. Now, it takes a maximum of two hours,” he said.

Madan Singh, an advocate at the Shamli Collectorate, said low sugarcane prices and the rising menace of stray cattle devouring crops have emerged as poll issues in the region, where farmers have held anti-government protests at several locations.

In January, farmers in Shamli sat outside a sugar mill for 12 days, preventing any procurement, in protest against the rising arrears and low procurement price for sugar. In February, Bharatiya Kisan Union’s Bijnore district president Digambar Singh locked up the local BJP office and also the home of a local MLA to protest non-payment of the sugarcane dues for 2018-19 harvest season.

“Nobody cares for farmers,” said Deshpal Rana, who quit the BJP’s farmers cell last year and formed the Kisan Ekta Manch that led the Shamli protest. “The stray cows and poor sugarcane price is the biggest issue”.Vinay Kumar, state vice president of the Bharatiya Kisan Union,agrees. He added that voting in western UP will be on farm-related issues and the menace of stray cows. Unlike in 2014, the most influential farmers body of the region, dominated by the politically influential Jats, has decided not to support any political party.

The BJP is trying to counter the SP-Bahujan Samaj Party combine with sugarcane politics considering that its Hindutva plank is not getting much traction in western UP. “Hindutva is an emotional issue for us. But, this election we are fighting on the work we have done for sugarcane farmers and voters know about it,” said Avdesh Rana, the BJP BJP farmers group head.

(With inputs from Zia Haq in New Delhi and S Raju in Meerut)

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