As elections approach, cane farmers in Punjab step up pressure with fresh protests over dues

Raakhi Jagga
Members of the BKU (Lakhowal) protest outside the Dhuri sugar mill in Sangrur. (Express Photo: Gurmeet Singh)

With polls round the corner, farmer unions have once again started their protest campaigns against the Punjab government over non-payment of sugarcane dues. Two unions - Bhartiya Kisan Union (Lakhowal) and Bharti Kisan Union (Ugrahan) - have started dharnas at separate sites in Dhuri area of Sangrur.

A total of 1,320 crore dues of farmers have been pending before co-operative and private sugar mills of the state since 2017-18.

The BKU Lakhowal Union has been supported by the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) for a long time. Ajmer Singh Lakhowal, president of the Lakhowal group, was Mandi Board chairman during the SAD-BJP's second term. Two days ago, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) too had extended support to them when Leader of Opposition Harpal Singh Cheema had sat with them outside Dhuri Sugar mill where farmers have staged a dharna and a 'fast unto death'. One farmer, Mohinder Singh, was admitted in hospital by police when his health deteriorated two days ago.

Read | Challenge for UP govt: Cane dues cross Rs 10,000 crore, half from first phase poll seats

"After Mohinder was forcibly admitted in hospital, now Ujagar Singh has started hunger strike. Likewise, more than 25 farmers are ready to sit on hunger strike one by one. I have appealed to the other farmer union as well to join us as our cause is the same," Ajmer Singh Lakhowal told The Indian Express.

Harinder Singh, general secretary of this union, said, "A total of Rs 790 crore dues of farmers are outstanding against seven private sugar mills of Punjab and Rs 300 crore against eight co-operative mills since January this year, while Rs 150 crore is outstanding against private and Rs 80 crore against co-operative sugar mills for the financial year 2017-18. Farmers have staged dharnas outside every sugar mill and every time, they are given assurance. Last time Dhuri mill owner had assured to pay dues soon, but full payment has not been done till now."

Kirpal Singh Dhuri, treasurer of BKU (Ugrahan), said, "We support the farmers who have blocked the Dhuri- Sangrur highway and not Lakhowal group as the latter is a group with political support while our union stays away from political parties. Though the cause of protest is the same, as our ideas don't match with them, we cannot sit with them on a common platform."

He added, "In February, when farmers had sat on a dharna on the same road, the mill owner had promised that he will start paying dues of farmers by clearing upto Rs 1.5 crore on a daily basis as total outstanding amount is Rs 70 crore against this mill. However, only Rs 7 crore has been paid by the mill owner in the past month and hence farmers had no choice but to restart dharna. "

Dhuri further said, "With polls round the corner, government will do something for sure and hence farmers have decided not to lift dharna without getting their dues."

Interestingly, while farmers are protesting on one hand, they are also sending sugarcane stock to the same mill. Asked about the same, Lakhowal said, "What else they can do? (If they don't), the sugarcane will go waste. They are compelled to do so."

Farmers had sold sugarcane to this mill at Rs 300 a quintal in 2017-18 when it was Rs 310 a quintal this financial year. In this payment, Rs 25 per quintal is to be compensated by the government.