Sep 17 - 23, 2007

It is pathetic that sugar mills have been hoarding the sugar stocks, causing an artificial shortage of sugar in the market and raising the market price of sugar from Rs.21 to Rs.51 per kg. Even at this time sugar in the local market is selling at Rs.30 per kg. A lot of hue and cry has been raised by the general public and projected and covered in the media. Then as a cosmetic approach, NAB made an investigation into the causes of the sugar crisis but the powerful lobby of sugar mills' owners, who are honourable national and provincial assembly members pressurized and threatened the government. And the government succumbed to their threats. The government seems to have asked NAB to desist submitting their report and taking any action against these "all powerful mill-owners".

It is not the end of it. Intimidation and economic harassment is being perpetuated by the mill-owners even to the resource-less sugarcane growers. Reportedly, sugar mills have decided that next sugar crushing season will start by January, 2008. Surely, they are strong enough not to heed the law of the country and the Sugar Act. Writ of the government is not visible to bind the millers to comply with the law. During the last several years, these mill owners have been delaying the crushing season and the poor farmers were forced either to delay sowing their next crop, which is usually wheat, or not to grow the next crop at all. This affects farmers and the people both as wheat is an important food crop for our countrymen.

The government never feels tired to comment that agriculture is the backbone of its economy and that the government is all-out in resolving the farmers' problems but the realities on ground are not in consonance with what it assures.

Under the existing law of the country, sugar mills are legally bound to pay the price of the sugarcane supplied to them, within a fortnight after delivery. But they seldom do so. The Sugar Mills Association, on the other hand, refuses to make payments until their sugar is sold out, not at the market rates, but at the price that they demand. It is still surprising that usually their demanded price is 20-30 percent more than the international rates.

The millers have superlatively powerful clout much more than any strong group in Pakistan. They are MNA's and MPA's in the provinces of Punjab and Sindh. Whenever and wherever their interests are involved, they make a united front and do not yield before the government. Evidently merit, law and ethics have the remotest justification to be applied in the case of sugar industry.

While sugarcane is a profitable crop for the growers. They would willingly continue growing and supplying sugarcane to the mills, provided mill-owners accept the cane in time, enabling them to sow wheat or other crop and provided they are made timely payments. However, they are exploited in many ways like:

1- A common complaint of farmers is that the weighing machines at the buying spots and mill premises use the trick of short weighing the cane loads by 10-15 percent.

2- The millers do not take into account the sugar content or percentage of sucrose in the cane while making the payment. It means no extra amount is paid for quality cane.

3- At times the mill-owners deduct some amount because of low sugar content (sucrose), restraining farmers to sow a low sugar content crop.

4- Sometimes sugar mills stop crushing in the middle of the crushing season.

Resultantly several trolleys loaded with cane stand in a row within and outside the mill premises, waiting for offloading. The motive behind of the millers is reduction in the weight of the produce and increase in sugar content. This causes a great inconvenience to the farmers and wastage of time and money.

5- It has also been observed that in order to blackmail the farmers, agents of the mills, under the guise of making prompt payment, make a discount/deduction from their bills at the rate of 10-15 percent.

6- Mill-owners, under the Sugarcane Act, are bound to make payment to farmers within 15 days from the delivery of cane. However, law enforcing agencies seldom come to the rescue of farmers and they have to wait for months and months to get the payment, which upsets their further programme of paying electricity bills and arranging for inputs for the next crop.

Farmers are facing these problems for years and years, however, delay in the crushing season is the most hurt-some as this delay deprives them of the scope for the next crop of the year. Most of our farmers sow wheat after the cane crop. Proper season for sowing wheat in time is till 15th November. Thereafter the yield is expected to suffer a downfall. After 15th December, prospects to get better yield become bleak. In the past when sugar mills started the crushing season late, the farmers reacted to reduce the area for cultivation of sugarcane, which also caused shortage of sugar.

Subsequently farmers were lured by offering higher rates so that they may resume cane cultivation, production and supply. However, for the last four years the sugarcane crushing season is being delayed by the mill-owners but now the decision of mill-owners to start the crushing season in January, 2008 would be an extremely gruesome step that may again force them to abandon growing sugarcane. Some of the importers have imported sugar from India to meet the shortage of the commodity in the market in view of the coming month of Holy Ramzan. The mill-owners have made some objections with regard to the quality of Indian sugar, reportedly containing sulfur, injurious to health. Moreover, they have also threatened that the import of sugar can defer their crushing season. However, PCSIR, after a laboratory test, has given their clearance that there is no sulfur and the sugar is fit for consumption.

The government's silence on the issue is mysterious and apathetic to farmers. Foreseeing the situation, some analysts apprehend that the government would sit on the looming crisis till November, 2007, after which, it is feared that a sort of drama would be staged and mill-owners would be asked to start negotiations with cane growers' representatives/farmers' associations. The new crushing date may be agreed upon probably by 15th December 2007 thus the real crushing season, as decided by the millers' association would be in January, 2008. According to the relevant stipulations of the Cane At, the crushing of sugarcane in the province of Sindh should start from October 1 and in Punjab from October 15. On the other hand, the mills claim that these dates are November 1 and November 15 respectively. Whatever the case may be, the law is violated when the crushing is delayed, to the benefit of the sugar mills and to the disadvantage of poor cane growers. It is ironic that no punitive action is taken against the violators, which encourage the millers to go scot-free and continue violating the law every year.

While the delay suits the sugar industry as sugar content (sucrose) reaches its peak in January and February, the weight of the crop comes down considerably with the passage of time, which is disadvantageous to the farmers. In this way the mill-owners pay less to farmers for the crop and get more sugar. Estimatedly one percent increase in sugar content brings an average mill an extra income of Rs.10 15 million.

If the government is really sympathetic to the farmers and if, as it claims that it is farmer-friendly, it should act now and ensure that the cane crushing season starts on time in accordance with the law of the land. In order to resolve the problems of farmers, the government should take a clear-cut undertaking from the mill-owners for a timely start of the crushing season or issue a waiver for the sales tax on gur and shakkar manufacturing so that farmers may not suffer for the indifferent attitude and delaying tactics of the mill-owners. To genuinely support the farmers, the government should encourage them in manufacturing gur and shakkar and make suitable arrangements to facilitate exports of these products to Russia and Central Asian States, where there is huge demand thereof. While it would serve as a protection to the farmers against the exploitation of the mill-owners, the country would be able to earn handsome foreign exchange.

At the end it is requested that the government should be considerate and responsive to farmers, practically and not by mere lip service so that their genuine problems and plights of cane growers are resolved without any delay and without causing them any inconvenience and financial loss because of the sugar mills exploitations and mal-practices.