Thousands of farmers of the Doaba region in Punjab have been on agitation since August 20, against mounting dues of the sugarcane mills and low (SAP) — the price the sugarcane mill owners are supposed to pay the sugarcane farmers for their produce.
Batala, Gurdaspur, Dinanagar, Pathankot, Bhoa, Hoshiarpur, Bhogpur and Dasuya comprise Punjab’s sugarcane belt. Farmers of the Doaba and Majha sugarcane belts are at the forefront of the protest which started in Jalandhar. More than 20,000 farmers held a protest dharna and march on the first day of the agitation, on the Dhanowali Road on the Jalandhar-Phagwara highway. They blocked the highway as well as the railway tracks.
Traffic from the Maqsudan bypass flyover to the PAP Chowk, connecting Jalandhar, Amritsar and Ludhiana has been forced to a standstill. Hundreds of trucks are stranded on the Jalandhar-Phagwara highway. The Punjab Roadways and PRTC buses have to use link roads. The dharna on the rail tracks at Dhanowali has forced the Indian Railways to cancel or re-route 126 trains.
The agitating sugarcane farmers are demanding that the SAP of sugarcane be raised to at least Rs 400/quintal from the present Rs 310.
According to the president of the Doaba Kisan Union, Kuldip Singh, for 6 years the state government had not increased the rates of SAP for sugarcane. The prices of fertilisers, labour, diesel rates have been increasing. The farmers have been giving demand letters to the government every year, but to no avail. He said, “When the government came in 2017, then there was just a 10 rupee increase in the rate while they had promised 20. Earlier, the Akalis didn’t increase the rate, then the Congress came and promised they will increase the rate by Rs 10 every year. If they increased even that much every year, we wouldn’t have complained. But we need the sugarcane SAP to be at least Rs 400 per quintal”. He pointed out that the government already owes the farmers Rs 2,000 crore for past five years and also owes pending dues of Rs 56 crore to the sugar mills”.
Other agitating farmers questioned the sincerity of the Punjab state government, which on the one hand makes a show of solidarity with the kisans protesting against the anti-kisan laws on the borders of Delhi, while on the other hand, it does nothing to ensure that sugarcane farmers get remunerative rates for their produce. Farmers spend at least Rs 1 lakh per acre on sugarcane cultivation, they pointed out, in justification of the demand of SAP of Rs 400/quintal.
The kisan unions of Doaba, including Doaba Kisan Union, Bhartiya Kisan Union, Doaba Kisan Sangharsh Committee and Majha Kisan Sangharsh Committee (MKSC), are the main organisers of the protest. 15,000 members of the Majha Kisan Sangharsh Committee (MKSC) are participating in the protest. Farmers of Gurdaspur too are playing an active role. The 32 kisan unions under the Samyukta Kisan Morcha (SKM) have supported the agitation of the sugarcane farmers.
Drawing inspiration from the 9-month long protest of the kisans at Singhu border, SKM leader Baljit Singh who is in Jalandhar for the protest said, “Singhu morcha is for the country, but this protest is for Punjab. The morcha (SKM) is airing the concerns of the sugarcane belt and demanding a decent hike in SAP. The successive governments promised to increase SAP by Rs 15-20 every year. The promise hasn’t been fulfilled yet. In Gurdaspur yesterday, our cavalcade was 2-3 km long. Farmers know if they get together, they will get the promised rates”.
Balwinder Singh Raju, president, MKSC, said to the media: “The Beas flows between Majha and Doaba. No other crop except sugarcane works in that region. Every year there are floods. They (government) don’t adequately compensate us for floods. We want to diversify, but there’s no MSP for us. The MSP of corn is Rs 1,800, but it sells for mere Rs 800-900. The MSP of Moong is Rs 7,500, but traders pay mere Rs 4,000. Dals don’t sell at MSP. They want to give everything to corporates. It is shameful they won’t pay SAP for sugarcane either. What are we asking is at least Rs 363 to Rs 383 a quintal on a par with Haryana. At present, with SAP of Rs 310, we are incurring a loss of Rs 50-70. In 2017, we held a meeting with Manpreet Badal and he promised Rs 10 that year and a regular hike every year. But now they tell us they don’t have money.”
Women have also joined the protest in large numbers, besides extending support by supplying cooked food and other necessities. The protesting sugarcane farmers have set up tents and toilets, preparing for a prolonged agitation unless the government accepts their demands.
People of the surrounding areas are wholeheartedly supporting the agitation, supplying food, water, tents, etc. The protesting farmers opened the service lanes on the day of rakshabandhan, to enable people to meet on the festive occasion.
The discussions of the sugarcane farmers with the state government on August 22 did not lead to any resolution of the farmers’ demands. The agitating sugarcane farmers’ unions are determined to continue their protest and have declared that the highway and rail blockade would continue until the state government gives in to their demands.