Sugarcane farmers from parts of north India, under the banner of the All-India Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU), stormed into the Capital on Monday and declared an indefinite dharna to press for higher sugarcane price.
They want the recently introduced system of Fair and Remunerative Price (FRP) for cane scrapped. BKU president Mahendra Singh Tikait, who led the farmers, said: "We are not leaving unless we are heard and our demands met," declared Mr. Tikait.
The representatives of the farmers, including women, are seeking to meet Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, even as the issue threatens to snowball into a major political controversy, with several Opposition parties planning to oppose "tooth and nail" in Parliament the Bill that will replace the ordinance that introduced the FRP system.
The farmers said that by introducing the FRP, the Centre had taken away the right of State governments to set price for cane. Under the new system, the States would have to bear the difference between the FRP and the price set by them (as State Advised Price or SAP), which was normally higher.
"Agriculture is a State subject and we demand that the right of the State governments to fix sugarcane prices, that has been withdrawn with an amendment in the Sugar (Control) Order, 1966 [through an ordinance], be resolved immediately," the farmer leaders said in a memorandum faxed to the Prime Minister's Office.
They are demanding sugarcane prices commensurate with the retail price index for sugar. Sugar is selling at between Rs.32 and Rs.38 per kg in retail markets.
Earlier, the government had a Centrally declared Statutory Minimum Price (SMP) for sugarcane, while some State governments used to declare an SAP that was over and above the Central price. Millers opposed this anomaly. From this year, the Central government, through the ordinance that has been ratified by the Cabinet, declared a uniform FRP of Rs.129.85 per quintal linked to a recovery of 9.5 per cent with advice to millers to "voluntarily" give a higher price to cane growers as they were getting a good market price for sugar this season.
"Claim not correct"
"The government claim that the FRP covers the cost of production and gives a profit is not correct. The FRP does not even cover the minimum cost of production," farmer leaders said in the memorandum.
The signatories - Ajmer Singh Lakhowal (Punjab); Gurnam Singh (Haryana); Jagdish Singh (Madhya Pradesh); Bhanu Pratap Singh (Uttar Pradesh); Sanjay Choudhury (Uttarakhand) and Yudhvir Singh (Indian Coordination Committee of Farmers' Movements) - belong to States that have been hit by drought.
"It is the principle of the FRP that we are opposed to. This being a year of cane shortage, millers may give a higher price, but what about later years? Low FRP will kill farmers. We want it scrapped," said Mr. Yudhvir Singh.
Asked whether the Rs.280 per quintal, that they were demanding, would not further push up the price of sugar, Rakesh Tikait said, "In the late 60s, 2.5 quintals of wheat could fetch one tola [about 10 grams] of gold. Now 17 quintals fetch one tola of gold. Mehngai [price rise] is for everyone, then why should only the farmer be crushed? On the one hand, we don't get the price for our produce and, on the other, consumers get it at an exorbitant price. What is happening in the middle? The government should act on that instead of pressuring farmers by not giving them their price and importing at a much higher cost."
The farmers declared that they would not allow imported raw sugar to reach the mills. Factories in Uttar Pradesh have not started crushing, as the imbroglio on cane prices continues. It is understood that Food and Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar has sought Chief Minister Mayawati's cooperation to facilitate movement of raw sugar so that the mills can start crushing. Imports are to bridge a shortfall of about 65 lakh tonnes of sugar due to below par production, he is reported to have explained.