Monday 11 June 2007

BIHAR'S BITTER HARVEST

Sugarcane farmers in West Champaran have not been paid for years bythe sugar factory in the district or the one across the border inNepal. Thanks to indifferent authorities, they have no one to turn to.
Lalchand Sarkar is distraught. He had to call off his daughter'swedding at the last minute as he didn't have enough money. "Thewedding plans have been dropped. I have to wait for my cane paymentfor god knows how many more years," lamented the 52-year-old farmerwho owns five acres of farmland in Bhedihanri, a village settled byrefugees from Bangladesh, situated close to the Indo-Nepal border inBihar's West Champaran district. Together, the Tirupati Sugar MillsLtd — the only sugar factory in West Champaran — and the BagmatiKhandsari Sugar Factory Pvt Ltd in Kudiya, across the border inNepal's Nawalparasi district, owe Sarkar Rs 75,000.
In the last ten odd years, thousands of sugarcane growers in WestChamparan have supplied their produce to the Bagmati Khandsari sugarfactory. Sugarcane has been smuggled across the border to Nepal fromBihar and Uttar Pradesh since the 1970s. Sugarcane growers in WestChamparan seem unaware that selling sugarcane across the border inNepal is illegal. And most of them have similar stories of paymentslong overdue.Sugarcane smuggling in West Champaran violates laws barring the saleof Indian raw materials in the international market and costs Indiaseveral crores annually in the form of lost cane cess, excise duty onsugar and molasses, and the local development funds for cane-growingareas paid by sugar mills.
It was the Bihar government's callous handling of relations betweenthe West Champaran cane growers and the Tirupati Sugar Mills Ltdforced the cane growers to sell their produce in Nepal in the firstplace. More than the farmers, it is the factory owners, the police,the Sashastra Seema Bal (SSB) personnel guarding the Indo-Nepalborder, district administration officials and the Bihar SugarcaneDevelopment Department officials who have benefited from theclandestine trade in sugarcane. The smuggling continues despite thepresence of SSB guards along the "soft border".
Sugar factories in Nepal located close to the border have beensourcing cane from across the border because of low cane production inNepal's hilly terai areas. While a majority of West Champaran'sfarmers have not been paid in full or not paid at all by factory atKudiya in Nepal, located six kilometres from Valmikinagar, the ownersof the Bagmati Khandsari Sugar Factory, the cane-supply agentsappointed by it, West Champaran administration officials and, to someextent, SSB personnel — all have benefited from the smuggling.The SSB functions under the Union home ministry which woke up to thefact of the smuggling only recently. In the first week of March, theministry sent circulars to the SSB asking it to "stop smuggling ofsugarcane from India for use in Nepalese factories." After thecircular was issued, the SSB stepped up its vigil on the borders butthe sudden denial of passage to Indian cane growers accustomed toyears of unrestricted smuggling into Nepal led to agitations anddemonstrations, in which a West Champaran district administrationexecutive magistrate was gravely injured.
Thousands of cane farmers demonstrated at the international border atthe Gandak Barrage in Valmikinagar (in West Champaran) in Marchdemanding permission to carry tractor-loads of sugarcane to Bagmati inNepal.
The SSB and the West Champaran district administration blame eachother for the smuggling, and the cane growers blame the Bihargovernment and the Tirupati Sugar Mills Ltd. Located at Bagaha in WestChamparan district, the factory owes the area's cane growers about Rs14 crore. Half that amount is due from the current season's produce;the other half has been pending since the 1998-99 season.

THE SHAHS

Shankar Shah, his wife Chandana Rani and father Ashutosh Shah (extremeright), with the sugarcane supply receipts issued to them by theBagmati Khandsari Sugar Mills Pvt Ltd situated in Kudia in Nepal. Shahsays that the factory owner, Rohit Shrestha, pointed his revolver athim when he met him at his factory in January 2007 and asked for hispending dues. "He took many of my receipts and tore them in front ofme. He then asked me to run if I wanted to live. I have no money totreat my serious eye injury. My children cannot study, and I cannotprovide any medical care to my aging father," Shankar told Tehelka athis home at Bhedihanri village near Valmikinagar.
The factory, owned by Kolkata-based industrialist Manoj Poddar, hasbeen so erratic in the payment of dues owed to the cane growers overthe past decade that most of them have been forced to smuggle theirproduce to the factory across the border in Nepal hoping for early andhigh payments. The crushing capacity of the Tirupati Sugar Mills Ltdis a low 25,000 quintals per day and farmers are obliged to carrytheir cane to the Nepali factory to avoid the drying and wastage oftheir sugarcane."
We cane growers are like the state government and the sugar factory'sbonded labourers. Because our farms fall in the reserved area of thefactory at Bagaha, we are prevented from supplying our produce toother factories in Bihar, which make timely and better payment. TheBihar Sugarcane (Regulation of Supply and Purchase) Act, 1981, is adraconian law modelled on the laws in force during the British era. Ithas forced us to indulge in smuggling," said Mohammad Issa, a canegrower at Paras Nagar village in Bagaha, who is owed Rs 22,000 by theBagmati factory in Nepal and Rs 40,000 by Tirupati Sugar Mills in Bagaha.
There have been frequent demands by cane growers' associations for theabolition of the act so that farmers no longer have to depend on thewhims of a single factory. "This act is similar to the British lawsgoverning indigo cultivation in this area decades ago. While the Bihargovernment has never cared to implement the pro-farmer provisions andspirit of this act, factory owners have colluded with cane developmentauthorities to violate the act's provisions and keep thousands of poorfarmers perennially in distress," Raj Kaushal Mishra, aValmikinagar-based cane grower and general secretary of the BiharKisan Sangh told Tehelka. "With the sugar factory still cheatingfarmers and the laws preventing farmers from taking their produce tofactories of their choice, fewer and fewer farmers will opt forsugarcane farming in the coming years."
Apart from the Tirupati Sugar Mill's erratic payment schedules, whatmakes farmers in West Champaran opt for the Bagmati sugar factory arethe incentives it provides them. These include pre-season advanceamounts, higher cane prices and transport facilities. Sources in the SSB said that over 40 of Bagmati Sugar Factory's tractor-trolleys arein operation in Valmikinagar to carry the cane across the border. Thefactory's owner, Rohit Shrestha, has been "blacklisted" by the Nepalgovernment for tax related irregularities. He couldn't be contacteddespite repeated attempts by Tehelka.

THE SAHNIS

Laxman Sahni of village Paras Nagar in Bagaha, West Champarandistrict, displays sugarcane supply receipts issued to him year afteryear by Tirupati Sugar Mills Ltd. in Bagaha. Sahni supplied sugarcaneworth Rs 30,000 to the factory this season alone. He has yet toreceive any payment. "I have encashed many of my older factoryreceipts from rich people at 40 percent cuts because I needed themoney badly to grow sugarcane on my six acres of farmland and to sendmy children to school," Laxman told Tehelka. Sahni's farmlands lieacross the Gandak river and are accessible only by boat.
Another reason behind sugarcane smuggling is that large tracts ofcane-growing areas, lying in the Gandak river's sprawling diara —large tracts of land which are surrounded by water — are not claimedas reserved areas by sugar factories either in Bihar or in UP. This isbecause of the unclear demarcation of inter-state borders and theabsence of revenue villages in the diara lands along the Gandak.
Measuring as much as 35 km across at several places, the Gandak'sdiara lands have a bountiful harvest of cane.
Before the SSB was deployed along the Indo-Nepal border four yearsago, there was no hindrance to taking sugarcane to Nepal. With Kudiyajust six kilometres from Valmikinagar, it has always been much easierfor growers to take their produce there than to Bagaha, which is 45 kmaway and accessible only through a potholed, rundown road which passesthrough dense forest.
Compounding the cane-growers' woes are the nearly 2,000 independentcane crushers operating in the Tirupati Sugar Mill's reserved area.Most of these crushers are illegal and they give loans to needyfarmers during the growing season. When the cane is ready, theyforcibly seize it, often at half the price offered by the sugarfactories. "Truckloads of treacle and molasses produced by thecrushers are smuggled into Bangladesh via Nepal through the Indo-Nepalborder, giving the crusher owners a good profit. SSB personnel gethandsome bribes in the bargain," local farmers said.
The SSB denies there is any sugarcane smuggling. "Before the SSB'sdeployment, smuggling was rampant. These days it's stopped altogether,which is why the farmers had to demonstrate [in arch]. There arecertain elements on both sides of the border who want the smuggling tocontinue and these people instigated the farmers to demonstrate,"SSB's 12th Battalion Commandant HR Barot told Tehelka.When contacted, Bihar sugarcane development minister Nitish Mishrasaid that that the government had not received any reports ofsmuggling. "We're trying our best to improve the farmers' conditions.Legal action is being taken against the Bagaha sugar factory forcheating farmers. Many of the cane growers' problems will be solvedonce our proposed sugar factories are set up," Mishra said.VK Tulsyan, vice-president of Tirupati Sugar Mill Ltd, told Tehelka:"
We will clear the dues owed to the farmers and the workers once asuitable package is announced by the Bihar government. We're alsoplanning capacity expansion in the near future, depending on howconducive the environment is." Forty-two cases were registered against Tirupati Sugar Mill by the West Champaran District Magistrate MihirKumar in February for habitual non- payment of dues to cane growersand mill workers. The total money owed adds up to Rs 13 crore. Thecases are currently pending in the Patna High Court.

By Anand ST Das
Valmikinagar (West Champaran)
Courtsey Tehelka

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