Sugarcane growers and millers are at loggerheads as the provincial government fails to fix rate and crushing date
A group of agriculturists and growers of sugarcane from lower Sindh, on the platform of an association called Sindh Agriculture Research Council (SARC), has announced to stage a novel protest by offering ‘Namaz-e-Janaza’ of Sindh’s agriculture in front of Bilawal House, the residence of ruling Pakistan People’s Party head Asif Ali Zardari in Karachi’s posh Clifton area on December 2, 2017.
The growers’ body justifies its protest and a sit-in plan at the Bilawal Chowrangi by saying that more than half of Sindh’s 32 sugar mills are owned by the ruling family that has created a monopoly-like situation in the rural agro industry, thus exploiting the growers’ interests. The powerful sugar mills cartel in Sindh is adamant not to start crushing on time and deny outstanding dues to the growers on the pretext that they have unsold stocks of previous year’s sugar.
The millers complained that the federal government did not allow them to export sugar timely, which caused a buildup of stocks in their godowns. They also complain about increased input cost of production and lower market rates.
The growers allege that the provincial government is supporting the millers due to political reasons as it has not notified the official rates of sugarcane yet. The Punjab government has already notified the rates at Rs180 per maund (40 kg).
The Sindh’s millers are adamant to pay just Rs154 per maund against the sugarcane growers demand price of Rs180 for a maund, equal to the rate in Punjab. "We are unable to meet the cost of production due to increased input prices of fertilizers, pesticides etc.," said Nawab Zubair Talpur, President of Sindh Growers Alliance (SGA).
"Fake fertilizers and agro-medicines are available in rural markets, which cause heavy losses to the growers," complained Talpur, adding that last year he had even purchased hybrid seeds, which proved to be fake when they grew. "We face water shortage due to rampant corruption and irrigation water is unavailable at the tail end due to theft and corruption in the Irrigation Department."
On the other hand, the millers say due to red-tape in bureaucracy at the federal government level, they were unable to export their products on time. The government has recently decided to allow export of 1.5 tons of sugar out of total 3 million tons of sugar stored in surplus in Pakistan, but exporters demand subsidies on exports due to lower international prices.
According to Pakistan Sugar Mills Association (PSMA), the sugar rates in the international market are currently lower at 350 dollar per ton against a rate of 550 per ton a few months back, when the PSMA had demanded the government allow exports.
Pakistan’s total domestic consumption of white sugar is estimated at 5 million tons against production of about 6.5 million tons, thus every year around 1.5 million tones remain surplus, which need to be exported. Obviously, sugar exports from Pakistan remain low. Last year, Pakistan exported less than 100,000 tones of sugar, thus stock is piling up.
Last year also, the tussle between growers and mills over rates continued during the entire crushing season. The Sindh government had fixed the rate of sugarcane at Rs172 per maund in 2016 season, with a subsidy of Rs12 per maund. Thus the mills had to pay Rs160 per 40 kg and the remaining amount was reimbursed by the provincial government to the millers.
But this time, the mills owners are not ready to pay even equal to the price of last year. Sindh’s growers say traditionally they were receiving higher prices than growers in Punjab due to better ratio of sucrose in their sugarcane.
There are political reasons for exploitation of Sindhi growers. The provincial government is under the heavy influence of mill-owners, who operate factories on their own terms and conditions. They even ignore the directives of courts and cane commissioner. Currently, the growers have filed a petition in the Sindh High Court against delay in crushing season and fixation of rates. Authorised to take action against the sugar mills under the Sindh Sugar Factories Control Act 1950, which was amended in 2009, the cane commissioner can fix the rates and force the mills to start operations. But the cane commissioner is reluctant to take action against the millers due to their political influence.
Many groups of growers are protesting in different parts of Sindh due to the government’s failure to start crushing and fixing rates. In Upper Sindh’s Gambat town, the local growers staged hunger strike for start of mills, which they had to call off after assurance by the deputy commissioner of Khairpur Mirs district that the mills of the area would be started soon.
"The main sufferers of this predicament are small growers as delay in crushing season harm their crop and they often find it difficult to get even the notified rates because of late harvesting," said Talpur.
On the other hand, he said big landlords can easily fetch the right price, even higher than official rates on their sugarcane, but mills often deny payment of the official rates to small growers on different pretexts like lower sweetness in sugarcane. "Our peasants also suffer as under the laws, they deserve half of crop production," he added. Shortage of irrigation water in the sugarcane growing areas also causes heavy loss to the crop’s quality.
The protesting growers of Sindh make it a point that their protest in Karachi on December 2 is a ‘last resort’ to vent their anger against the provincial government’s failure to compel the sugar mills to ignite the chimneys of factories and start crushing of sugarcanes. Usually, the sugar mills light their chimneys by October 15 every year and start crushing by early November.
Any delay in crushing by mills cost the growers heavily, but benefit the mills. According to Ali Palh, Convener of Sindh Agriculture Research Council, "the millers want to start their mills in December or later because of two reasons: in winter weight of sugarcane is dropped and sucrose content increases, which is favourable for them but it causes loss to growers."
The growers have to supply their produce to the mills on time so they are able to prepare their lands for the next crop. They have to sow the next crop, mostly wheat, by mid-November, which requires a certain period for levelling the fields to make them ready for the new crop. Delay in sugarcane crushing causes growers losses in the form of low weight due to over-ripening of sugarcane. They are also unable to sow wheat seeds on time, thus resulting in lower production of wheat crop as well.
When asked why the growers don’t stop cultivating sugarcane when they face such difficulties every year, the growers say that sugarcane is considered a cash crop, which needs little labour but fetches good price as against other substitute crops during the same season. Because sugarcane and cotton prices are fixed by the government, the growers hope to get that price. But for cotton, a lot of labour and pesticides are required and the Phutti (seeded cotton) prices are not attractive.
"Last year, we grew tomatoes and onions during Khareef, but their prices were much lower in the market. This year, we were discouraged to sow both the vegetables, but now prices of onions and tomatoes are sky rocketing," said Zubair Talpur.