HYDERABAD: Giving a new deadline of two days to the Sindh government to meet their demands, sugar cane farmers have again warned of an indefinite sit-in protest on the National Highway.
The announcement of the new deadline was made by the Joint Sugar Cane Growers Action Committee during their meeting with Agriculture Minister Sohail Anwar Siyal and Information Minister Nisar Hussain Shah at the Hyderabad Gymkhana on Monday.
The ministers reportedly assured the farmers' body that the government would start taking action against mills who defied the Sindh High Court's (SHC) order regarding the sugar cane rate. However, the farmers took the assurance with a pinch of salt and announced the sit-in in case their demands were not met in two days.
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The ministers' meeting was deemed an attempt to prevent protests during the public meeting of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) on January 5 in Mirpurkhas where the party's top leadership will be addressing supporters.
"We will stop any further negotiations after two days. This will be followed by an indefinite sit-in on the National Highway [in Hyderabad] on January 8," Abdul Majeed Nizamani, president of Sindh Abadgar Board which is one of the four farmers' organisations constituting the action committee, told participants of a press conference.
The action committee claimed that after the SHC's order, 25 out of 32 sugar mills stopped operations and buying sugar cane. The court had ordered on December 21 the sugar mills to pay Rs172 per 40 kilogrammes (kg) of sugar cane to the farmers and deposit in the court Rs10 for every 40kg they purchased. The deposited amount would either be paid to the farmers or returned to the mills after the court disposed of the case.
"The cane is drying up and farmers are suffering huge financial losses," lamented Sindh Chamber of Agriculture President Qabool Muhammad Khatian. The crop is cultivated on around 600,000 acres in Sindh, he said, adding that delay in the sugar cane harvest would lead to a delay in the sowing of wheat and other winter crops.
Under the Sindh Sugar Factories Control Act, 1950, the provincial government has to notify crushing season and the crop's rates in the month of October every year. "If action isn't taken against mills in two days, we will stop holding further negotiations with the government," Nawab Zubair Talpur, head of Sindh Abadgar Ittehad, warned.
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Representing the Sindh Abadgar Board, Mehmood Nawaz Shah said the Sindh government was trying to find an excuse by blaming the federal government for the crisis.
Meanwhile, growers continued protests in Ghotki, Sukkur, Sujawal and other districts on Monday. "We have been sitting on the highway for three days but no elected representative or an official has come to listen to our complaints and assure redress," bemoaned Lal Baksh Siyal, who led the protest in Ghotki district.
"Sindh government seems helpless in front of the PPP's co-chairperson [Asif Ali Zardari]," alleged Jamal Mehmood Khuhro. The protesters warned the government that if they were forced to end the sit-in, they would block the railway tracks. The protesters appealed to the chief justice of Pakistan to take suo motu notice of the issue and provide justice to farmers.
In Sujawal, protesters led by Pakistan Muslim League - Nawaz MPA Hasnain Shah Sherazi and former nazim Syed Shafqat Shah Sherazi blocked the Karachi-Badin highway. The sit-in continued for over three hours.
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Talking to the media in Mirpurkhas district on Sunday, the agriculture minister said some conspirators were using the farmers' protests for their vested interests. Referring to the hearing of the sugar cane issue in the SHC, Siyal said the government would submit its reply in court on January 10.
"Under the 1950 Act, the provincial government can only impose a penalty of Rs100,000 on a mill for the violation [and] cannot do anything more," Siyal said, tacitly suggesting that even the government strictly implemented the law, the growers' demands would still not be met.