At Belagavi, the epicentre of sugarcane agitation, the problem has accentuated for two reasons — many of the owners of the 23 sugar factories in the district are powerful political leaders and a large chunk of farmers, over a third, grow sugarcane and depend on these factories for their livelihood.
“Sugar is probably the most politicised industry. All factories are owned by politicians and each politician hopes to own one,” said former Union Minister and farmers’ leader Babagouda Patil.
All established leaders in Belagavi own private factories or run cooperative factories. Most recently, first-time MLA Laxmi Hebbalkar started her own factory and Anjali Nimbalkar, who was recently elected, is also planning to start a sugar factory in Khanapur, according to sources. Suresh Angadi, BJP MP, is also planning to set up one such factory.
According to Mr. Patil, it is hard for officials to enforce rules. For example, the sugar control order that makes it mandatory for the government to fix a local harvest area around each sugar factory from where it should buy sugarcane is not enforced. This compels farmers to transport their produce to distances up to 200 km hunting for factories that will accept their crop. Sugarcane is a fragile crop and loses weight every day after harvest. Delayed crushing, therefore, leads to farmers getting less money as the crop weighs less. The State Advised Price and Fair and Remunerative Price fixed by the government are also not enforced. Factories have also often been accused of fudging sugar conversion and recovery data, which allows them to pay less to farmers, he said.
Ashok Pujari, a farmers’ leader, also suspects a nexus between sugar factories and liquor industry. Factories supply molasses, the essential ingredient of alcohol, to liquor factories. Though sugar factories earn a lot through molasses trade, they do not share this with farmers, who are the raw material suppliers, he said.