15 March 2018 05:17:05 IST

It’s just not worth being a cane-grower

He’s constrained by law to sell only to the nearest mill. The mill, squeezed by politics and policies, manipulates growers

I am a farmer in a part of the country where the soil is fertile, water is plentiful and infrastructure very good indeed. There is a sugar mill less than a kilometre from my farm.

After growing cane for this factory for twenty years, I have given up on the crop. The factory has not bothered to ask why. I would have expected them to be curious because they had celebrated me just the year before as the best farmer in my area. I raised the maximum tonnage per acre.

When your best farmer turns his back on cane, you must wonder why. They seemed not to care.

Why don’t they care?

They don’t have to care because every sugar mill in this country is a monopoly. I can supply cane to this factory and to no other. I can sell my cane to a trader who will turn it into jaggery, but not to another factory. That is the law. The factory treats me as any monopoly would. If you had travelled by Indian Airlines before the advent of private carriers or had a phone connection before telecom was opened up, you would understand what I mean.

The true author of the muddle is the Government. After creating the zoning system that places farmers at the mercy of sugar mills, they have pursued two ends (and this holds for all governments, Centre and States).

The first is vote-bank politics. The price for cane is announced every year with a keen eye on impending political events, especially elections. The price is kept high, sometimes unrealistically so. The sugar mills demur, but they cannot force a rollback.

The second consideration is the price the urban consumer pays for sugar. This cannot be allowed to rise, for obvious political reasons. By prescribing the price at which cane has to be bought and controlling the price at which sugar can be sold, the Government has both ends of the sugar business sewn up.

The mills have to make money within this hugely controlled space. They try to make a killing when there is a shortage of sugar, but the Government will play spoilsport by lowering duties and bringing in imports. The mills want to take advantage of high international prices, but the Government would ban exports to hold domestic prices steady. The mills want to hold on to stocks of refined sugar if they expect the price to move up, but the Government would step in to limit the stock they can hold.

Passing on the problem

Caught in this cleft, the mills pass on as much of the problem to the farmer as is possible. He is the weakest link in the sugar chain. They refuse to pay him for his produce. I have made endless trips to the factory to be told that there is no money.

Cane arrears have been a fact of life for as long as I have been a cane farmer. There is no knowing when the money will come, and sometimes you wonder whether it will come at all. It could be months or years. When it does come, it may only be part payment. High cane prices promised by the Government are at their least automatic when it comes to settling the farmer’s dues. It is not anyone’s business to ensure that what is promised is actually delivered.

Cane is a one-year crop. The farmer is anxious to have his cane harvested on time because that is when he gets the best weight. But he cannot load it on to his tractor and turn up at the mill gate. The mill must issue the ‘cutting order’, which it does to suit its convenience.

The mill doesn’t want a build-up in sugar inventory when the market is bad, which means this will delay the harvest until fourteen or even sixteen months. The farmer must water and protect a crop that is losing value. If the market is good or if there is a shortage of cane, they may want your crop after only ten months although it is not fully grown. It is all in their hands, and you have no say.

Expensive and old-fashioned

Cane is an expensive crop to raise. It guzzles water, needs frequent application of fertiliser, and demands expensive weeding to make sure that these inputs reach the crop and not the weeds. All costs have gone up, but the most daunting of all is harvesting. Just this one operation can cost as much as a third of the total revenue. Cane is harvested exactly as it was fifty years ago. There is no mechanisation. Harvesting is done on contract by a maistry who organises the labour force. Since there is a shortage of labour and the farmer cannot put together a labour force on his own, it is the maistry who dictates the price and the harvesting schedule. He can make dizzying demands, and he could very well stop harvesting midway and move to another job that is more lucrative.

With sugarcane, it is Murphy’s law all the way: what can go wrong will go wrong!

The farmer is worse than powerless in the face of these odds. He can still grow cane for the jaggery trader, but that is like playing Russian roulette. The price of jaggery can swing wildly. When times are bad, you are lucky to find any buyer at all, never mind the price.

Freedom calls

If the farmer must stay with sugarcane, he must have at the minimum the freedom to sell his cane to any factory. That does not seem to be in the offing.

Our rulers are infatuated with monopolies. Handing over the citizen at every turn to a monopoly, we have been told, is at the heart of planned development. The Planning Commission is fortunately no more, but monopolies survive.

(The writer is a labour relations and HR consultant)