When will the suffering of the sugarcane farmers in Sindh end?
Pakistan is still primarily considered an agrarian economy. The on-going sugarcane pricing row between sugar mill owners and sugarcane growers in Sindh will only have damaging, if not destructive, consequences towards the rural economic backbone of Pakistan; especially in Sindh, in terms of agriculture.
Personally, as an agriculturist and as a sugarcane crop grower, it is becoming increasingly exasperating and vexing to exhibit restrain when one has to deal with the indifferent and apathetic attitude of the Sindh government and the cartel of the sugar mill owners.
To understand where it all began, one has to comprehend the political dynamics of Sindh, where a majority of sugar mill owners, if not all of them, have direct or indirect ties with ruling parties of the province along with the powerful bureaucracy. Contrary to popular misconception and belief, majority of growers of the crop are not politically affiliated feudal elites or landlords with huge land holdings.
For the crushing season of sugarcane 2013-2014, the Sindh government set the minimum support price of Rs172 per 40 kilograms. By that comparison, it defies logic and common sense to set the current sugarcane price at Rs155 per 40 kilograms. Furthermore, adding insult to injury, when they realised the gravity of their ineptness, they de-notified the notification, branding it as “interim” and issued a new notification setting the price at Rs182 per 40 kilograms.
Amid such an incompetent, back and forth, confusion induced stance of the Sindh government, the sugar mill owners became adamant on not purchasing the sugarcane at the government notified price. If only better sense and logic had prevailed and they had set the price of cane at Rs182 in the first place, this crisis would never have taken place to begin with.
When all the sugarcane growers of the other provinces, including Punjab and Khyber-Paktunkhwa (K-P), have gotten, more or less, the same rate of Rs182 and their crushing season has commenced without any significant hiccups, why must the farmers of Sindh suffer at the hands of a callous government? If the farmer sells the crop at the rate of Rs155 per 40kilograms, which the sugar mill owners want them to do, it would be hard to even recoup the initial investment borne per acre by the grower, let alone turn a profit. If one cannot break-even, how will the sugar cane farmers of Sindh find the necessary capital to sow the crop and purchase the necessary agricultural inputs for the next year?
One must also bear in mind that sugarcane takes about 12 to 14 months to grow; the growers have to wait patiently for more than a year to, literally, see the fruits of their labour.
On January 7, 2015, a massive dharna organised by sugarcane growers, along with the opposition political parties (PML-N, PML-F, MQM, PTI), of Sindh took place but fell on deaf ears – despite the Sindh government’s promise to intervene and alleviate the concerns of the farmers. Perhaps this was because PPP co-chairman, Asif Zardari, is allegedly the owner of at least 17 of the sugarcane mills operating in Sindh. Whatever the truth may be, rest assured, this sloppy treatment of the farmers in rural Sindh, where the farmers are already living in abject poverty, will be equal to an economic genocide.
The need of the hour is for Chief Minister, Qaim Ali Shah, to exercise his executive powers to bind the sugarcane mills to pay the price approved by the Sindh government and break their hegemony bleeding the sugarcane grower dry. And if that cannot be done, the least he can do is sit down with the respective stake holders to solve the issue and suggest a price that is acceptable to both, the growers and the sugar mill owners. Even PPP MNA Nawab Yousuf Talpur has expressed his concerns and disdain over this looming crisis.
This pricing crisis is now being handled by the Supreme Court. As the Supreme Court is hearing the petitions from both sides, the growers and the mill owners, thousands of acres of sugarcane crops are standing in the fields, withering and rotting away instead of being crushed in sugar mills.
Farm owners and opposition parties are planning on staging another sit-in on February 11th which will be followed be a large protest in Karachi, if this crisis has not been resolved by then.
It is sad to note that when the farmers of Sindh are not being tormented by natural calamities like torrential rainfalls or massive floods, like those of 2010 and 2011, or water shortages, they are harassed and disheartened by disasters such as the sugarcane pricing dispute.