Puducherry

Closure of Pondhicherry Cooperative Sugar Mill leaves staff, farmers in a spot

Next to paddy, sugar cane cultivation is a major farming activity in Puducherry and ever since the closure of the Pondicherry Cooperative Sugar Mills, farmers have been forced to take their harvest to private sugar mills in Tamil Nadu where they sell them at very low prices.

Next to paddy, sugar cane cultivation is a major farming activity in Puducherry and ever since the closure of the Pondicherry Cooperative Sugar Mills, farmers have been forced to take their harvest to private sugar mills in Tamil Nadu where they sell them at very low prices.   | Photo Credit: S.S. Kumar

Difficulties for the cooperative undertaking started in 1994, aggravated in 2011-12 and the unit was finally shut down in 2017

The closure of Pondhicherry Cooperative Sugar Mill has put a question mark over the future of around 300 workers.

With accumulated losses running to around ₹150 crore, the management shut down the operations in March 2017. The workers have been without salary for the last 37 months. The employees used to earn between ₹27,000 to ₹30,000 a month, said Sankaralingam, a retired employee and a resident of Kombakkam. Mr. Sankaralingam, who retired in 2018, is yet to get his retirement benefits.

The Puducherry Cooperative Sugar Mill facility at Lingareddipalayam.

The Puducherry Cooperative Sugar Mill facility at Lingareddipalayam.   | Photo Credit: S.S. Kumar

According to Madhavan, an aggrieved employee, at least 100 workers were solely dependent on the salary they earned from the mill and were now pushed to penury.

“Closure may not have affected many of the workers whose spouse or children are employed. But life has become an everyday struggle for sole breadwinners like me since the closure of the mill,” he said. He said most workers were aged above 50 and were not skilled to take up any other job. “Some of them have become farmhands but they too find it difficult to get daily work,” he added.

V. Shankar, secretary of Pondicherry Farmers’ Forum, said farmers in Puducherry were at a loss due to government’s decision to wind up operations. Since the closure of the mill, farmers in Nettapakkam, Embalem, Thirubhuvanai, Mangalam, Mannadipet, Villianur and Ossudu were forced to sell sugar cane to private mills at Nellikuppam and Mundiampakkam in Tamil Nadu. These mills paid low price to farmers in Puducherry, he said and added that the private mills left out a good portion of the sugar cane.

“That never used to happen when our mill was functioning. The government should take an immediate decision, particularly taking into account the condition of workers,” Mr. Shankar said. According to a union leader of the mill, the decline of the mill started from 1994 and it started aggravating in 2011-12.

Ten years ago, the mill used to crush 3.25 tonnes of sugar cane every year. When it was closed in 2017, the quantum of sugar cane crushed came to around 60,000 tonnes, he added. Mismanagement, coupled with lack of grant-in-aid from the government, led to the present condition of the mill, said S. Ramamurthy, president of Pondicherry Farmers’ Association.

The cooperative sugar mill in Lingareddipalayam in Mannadipet has been a source of revenue to farmers of not only Puducherry but also of neighbouring Tamil Nadu villages. This is the only mill in cooperative sector and was started after much struggle and consistent efforts by the territorial administration.

‘No justification’

There can be no justification whatsoever for the neglect of the mill which was making good profits and as a result of its good performance, the government even started a school called PONCOS. It is indeed a sorry spectacle that the mill was not functioning now, said S. Nadarajan, a resident of Ambalathadayar Madam Street.

Sugar cane farmers from nearby areas taking their harvest to private mills. S.S. Kumar

Sugar cane farmers from nearby areas taking their harvest to private mills. S.S. Kumar   | Photo Credit: S.S. Kumar

“It is a major undertaking of the territorial government. Proper planning is needed to revive the mill and any plan to shift the administration to any other source would cause havoc and will defeat the spirit of cooperative movement. Next to paddy, sugar cane cultivation is a major farming activity in Puducherry and hence this rich potential should be fully utilised and effective planning is needed to revive the mill,” said S. Kasthuri, a resident of Kirumampakkam.

A senior official told The Hindu that the government had taken several steps to revive the mill. “The call to operate the mill as a public sector undertaking or under private partnership mode will be finally taken by the Cabinet,” the official said.

In the last few months, the government has cleared pending arrears of ₹6 crore to sugar cane farmers. A sum of ₹6.5 crore has been paid to the EPF as employer share and ₹2 crore to LIC for providing gratuity to the employees under a special scheme.

“We are trying to reduce the liabilities before taking a final call on the operationalisation of the mill,” he added.

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Printable version | Feb 22, 2020 7:29:33 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/puducherry/closure-of-sugar-mill-leaves-staff-farmers-in-a-spot/article30814661.ece

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