Even as a majority of sugar mills have commenced crushing operations for this season, the issue of sugarcane price continues to be a bone of contention between the State government and growers.
As many as 54 of the 58 functional sugar mills in the State have commenced crushing operations, while the remaining are expected to start work soon. Talking to The Hindu here on Monday on the prevailing scenario in the sugarcane sector, Director of S. Nijalingappa Sugar Institute (erstwhile Karnataka Sugar Institute) R.B. Khandagavi said that farmers have taken up sugarcane cultivation in 4.25 lakh hectares of land.
Considering an average yield of 85 tonnes per hectare, the crop available would be around 350 lakh tonnes this year. Of this, nearly 300 lakh tonnes would be available for crushing and producing this year. The remaining yield would be utilised for seeds (sowing for next season) and jaggery production.
Karnataka is one of the four major sugarcane and sugar producing States in the country, with a crushing capacity of over 300 lakh tonnes. Of the 58 sugar mills, 22 are in the co-operative sector, two in the public sector, one in the joint sector and the others are khandsari (private sector).
A majority of these factories are located in the sugarcane-growing areas of north Karnataka, spread across the districts of Belgaum, Bagalkot and Bijapur. The installed crushing capacity in private mills account for nearly 65 per cent of sugar produced; it is 30 per cent in the co-operative sector, 4 per cent in the public sector, 1 per cent in the joint sector, considering that 90 per cent of the mills work annually.
The cost of sugarcane production comes to around Rs. 2,000 per tonne considering the prices and minimum labour wages, as listed by the government. It could be a little more, or less, in respect of small farmers whose family is engaged in bringing up the crop, and with the economical use of fertilizers and pesticides.
However, the farmers say that the cost of production is more than the official assessment because of substantial difference in actual wages given to farm workers and the minimum wages of Rs. 174 a day under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme.
F.B. Patil, a retired professor from Belgaum who has knowledge of sugarcane cultivation and sugar production and has been keenly watching the debate in the Legislature and among the farmers outside the Suvarna Soudha since the beginning of the winter session here, says the factories add to their profits by manipulating the cost of sugar production.
He says that the factories also earn profit by producing ethanol from molasses, bagasse and co-generation projects.
A leader of the Karnataka Rajya Raitha Sangha from Belgaum Kalyanrao Muchalambi has this to say: though there was no demand, Chief Minister Siddaramaiah ordered a magisterial inquiry into the suicide of Vittal Bhimappa Arabhavi, a marginal sugarcane grower from Kankanbhavi of Raibag taluk in the district, owing to losses and mounting debts. But, why is the Chief Minister not ordering a probe into the false claims and accounts of sugar mills — a demand that the farmers have been repeatedly making?