Wednesday, November 08, 2006

>Maharashtra gets sweet headache

Just when Maharashtra is wondering how to procure the surplus cotton crop produced this year, a bumper production of sugarcane is now giving the state a headache.

Sugarcane farmers have resorted to violent protests in different parts of Maharashtra refusing to sell their produce to sugar co-operatives — dominated by the Congress and Nationalist Congress Party — unless prices are increased. The estimated sugarcane crop this year is 600 lakh tonnes and the state government is expecting a record 70 lakh tonnes of sugar produced by 154 co-operative and private sugar factories. While Shetakari Sanghatana, a farmers' organization, has demanded a Miminum Support Price (MSP) of Rs 2,200 per tonne of sugarcane, the Swabhimani Shetakari Sanghatana, having strong presence in Kolhapur and Sangli, has demanded MSP of Rs 1,500 per tonne.

Sugar co-operatives feel this is unreasonable. "The season is yet to start. We don't know how much sugar will be recovered or what the future prices will be. These are the deciding factors for prices," Dr Indrajit Mohite, chairman of the Krishna sugar co-operative, Satara, argued. However, the farmers are adamant. Sharad Joshi, head of the Shetkari Sanghatana has threatened to fast unto death from November 16. Leaders of the farmers union have also threatened to attack vehicles and houses of ministers if they visit Western Maharashtra—the sugar bowl of the State it produces nearly 40 per cent of the total sugar in Maharashtra. Latur, home to Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh (a sugar baron himself) and Union Home Minister Shivraj Patil, has also experienced violent protests from farmers.

The agitation has delayed the production process. Out of 125 cooperative sugar factories only 50 have begun their crushing.

Vaijnath Shinde director of the Manjra Co-operative sugar factory, Latur, controlled by chief minister Deshmukh's family said: "The only way we can crush the bumper crop this year is to run our plants continuously for at least four months and that will be possible only if we have a steady flow of the raw material.'' In view of the violence, State's cooperative minister Patangrao Kadam will soon initiate a dialogue with the factories and farmers, Patil told. There were two separate meetings—in Kolhapur and Pune -- held on Monday to discuss the issue. However, neither failed to bring any positive outcome.

The sugar barons are lamenting that the sector has lost an opportunity to earn more money through sugar exports as it was banned earlier this year. "Other sugar producing countries had a bad season and there will be a shortage of sugar in world market. Since we will have surplus sugar, our co-operative industry can earn huge margins through exports," Deputy Chief Minister and NCP leader, RR Patil, pointed out.

According to Prakash Naiknavre, managing director of the Maharashtra State Co-operative Sugar Factories Federation Limited, the sugar ban was a 'wrong decision at the wrong time'. "It came at a time when international sugar prices were the highest and India was the only country which had a surplus," Naiknavre recalled. Leaders from both parties are pushing for lifting the ban. Considering that NCP Chief Sharad Pawar happens to be Union Agriculture Minister, they are likely to succeed (Pawar has earlier expressed publicly that ban should be lifted). However, Naiknavre does not think this will help.

"International sugar prices have dropped so even exports will bring us little revenue," he argued. "We have missed the bus."

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