Sugarcane contributes to 2.1% Nepalese AGDP which is commercial cash crop cultivated in Nepal. The productivity of sugarcane in Nepal is 45.26 mt/ha in 78,609 ha which is low in comparison to recommended varieties of Nepal (MoALD, 2019). Sugarcane cultivation is reported in 14 districts of Nepal however, the potential districts are 41 (MoAD, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016; MoALD, 2017, 2018). Though Nepal is in the 33rd position among the countries producing sugarcane in the world, sugarcane farming is not prospering in this situation. There are around 100,000 commercial sugarcane farmers in the country. Nepal produces approximately 20 million quintals of sugarcane annually. According to the Nepal Agricultural Research Council, National Sugarcane Crop Research Programme, Jitpur, a total of 4.3 million metric tonnes of sugarcane was produced in Nepal in fiscal year 2074/75 BS. More than 1.315 million households were directly involved in sugarcane farming in 2074/75 and thousands of laborers were employed.
Government has been providing subsidy on fertilizers, mechanization, insurance services, production-based cash subsidy and annually announces Minimum Procurement Price (MPP) prior to crop harvest to encourages farmers in sugarcane production (MoALD, 2019). Despite of these promotion programs, sugarcane industry has some challenges like lower productivity, unscientific price fixation and delay in payment by sugar-mills. There are disputes between farmers and sugar producers in relation to the MPP and price settlement. Similarly, high cost of production, traditional cultivation practices and problem of marketing are the major hindering factors for sugarcane development (Neupane et al., 2017; Pokharel et al., 2019; Sapkota et al., 2017). Also, the cases of shifting of production crops from sugarcane to cereals are also found. Despite assurances from the sugar mill operators and the government, there is regular media report about sugarcane farmers yet to receive payments for their produce since 2013. On 29th December 2019, sugarcane farmers from various districts of the Terai had staged protests in the country’s capital, Kathmandu demanding that they get paid what they are owed. When they came with their legitimate demands, there was almost nobody to listen to them but only after media reports brought out the stories of injustice done to them. The farmers braved the cold of Kathmandu and struggled for more than a week. Earlier in January last year, the agitating farmers had staged a demonstration at Maitighar area in Kathmandu too.
Sugarcane farmers had withdrawn their week-long protest after inking a five-point agreement with the government that included an assurance that sugar mill operators would be made to clear their outstanding dues by January 21. The task force was formed to study the status of sugarcane farming, ways to increase productivity, provide fertilizers to farmers on time, make the country self-reliant on sugar and manage sugar mills and the farmers had to return to their land as the harvest season was starting. But their voices were suppressed under Covid-19 pandemic crisis. They are dying not because of the pandemic but due to starvation and poverty. Though the government had assured to make the sugar producers clear all their dues after the lockdown is lifted, the farmers had felt betrayed.
According to the farmers, they have become upset as sugar mills have not purchased sugarcane at the floor price set by the government. The scale of injustice done to the sugarcane farmers is appalling. There are a dozen sugar mills operating across the country. Except for a few, most of them delay clearing the due amount to farmers almost every year. According to farmers, middlemen are making profits by purchasing chits from farmers at lower prices and they are compelled to sell sugarcane to the middlemen because they have pending loans to clear.
Let’s have a glimpse on scenario of different farmers of different districts:
Scenario of Rautahat: There are around 18,000 sugarcane farmers in Rautahat district. Shree Ram Sugar Mills, one of the largest sugar manufacturers operating in Garuda of Rautahat, declared its insolvency some months ago. Indira Sugar Mill of Pratappur has not paid more than Rs 90 million to the sugarcane farmers. According to the farmers, the owner of Indira Sugar Mill has locked the mill and is out of contact.
Scenario of Siraha: According to concerned authorities, there are around 15,000 farmers engaged in commercial sugarcane farming in Sarlahi alone including 100,000 farmers in 15 districts. They have been involved in sugarcane farming for generations and it’s their major source of income. This year, the sugar mill where they had been supplying the cane announced that it was shutting down.
Scenario of Nawalparasi: Sugarcane farmers of Nawalparasi are still waiting for their payments worth Rs 190 million from two sugar mills in the region. Lumbini Sugar factory of Sunwal, has not paid Rs 100 million to the farmers. The industry has not only halted the payment from last year, this year, they have stopped crushing and operators and employees of the factory are out of contact.
Annapurna Sugar Mill, Shree Ram Sugar Mill, Mahalaxmi Sugar Mill and three other sugar mills in Nawalparasi had shut down their operations. Moreover, the criteria set by the government to receive subsidy is also not farmer-friendly. It is said that Indu Shankar Sugar Mill located at Hariwan had sent the necessary bank information to the government and had helped farmers to some extent to get the subsidy amount. However, Annapurna Sugar Mill in Paschimkaul had not yet provided the necessary documents, due to which farmers have been unable to claim subsidy payments.
Government of Nepal has embraced SDGs, in development plans to minimize poverty and promote commercial agriculture for improving livelihood of the farmers. However, with the present scenario promises would be only promises aftermath and needs the immediate intervention in policy regulation, resources facilitation, organizational management and ecological balance. Though late, the government had shown readiness to address their concerns by signing five-point deal with the protesting farmers. But unlike the expectations of the farmers the agreement was limited to papers and words only. We need to stand by sugarcane farmers, until justice is done to them. The guarantee supply of sufficient and subsidized agriculture commodities like high yielding variety setts, modern agri-machineries, organic and inorganic fertilizers, irrigation infrastructures and plant protection measure are boon for higher production. Problem of delay payment must be solved by strict regulation and regular monitoring on the private sugar-mill promoting accountability. Similarly, local crushers should be considered in government price policies and activities to restrict their exploitation in pricing. Provision of direct cash subsidy should be made in line with the planting period so that farmer can use those subsidies for hiring machines, weeding, quality seeds, plant protection, irrigation and fertilization, which have a positive and significant effect in sugarcane production. Similarly, there should be the provision of procurement of the surplus stock of canes by the government, which are not brought by sugar-mill. The tears of the farmers depict the true picture of this country’s working class. The government should address all their concerns in such a way that they do not have to worry about not being paid, ever again. With policy and technological interventions, and promotional activities, sugarcane farming could be commercial and prosperous for improving livelihood of farming community.