Maharashtra is in the middle of a harsh summer and nearly 7.5 to 8 million tonne of sugarcane still remains to be crushed as the 2021-22 sugar season enters its last leg.
As opposed to 142 mills that had completed crushing operations last season, this time only 42 have ended operations. Most of the sugarcane in Marathwada region still remains to be crushed.
Several mills are facing a severe labour shortage, with cane workers either leaving mid-way or demanding extra money to harvest due to the heat, prompting millers to seek harvesters from neighbouring cane-producing states. Mills are struggling to complete crushing since the Sugar Commissionerate has asked them to seek written permission before closing operations.
Factories have started issuing public notices, asking its member-farmers to make arrangements to harvest and transport cane to the mills on their own to avoid litigation. If farmers complain of non-harvested cane, the government will have to pay them compensation before the season ends.
Usually, mills harvest and transport sugarcane of member-farmers before the season ends. Harvesters can crush cane on around 5.7 acres a day, as against 1.5 acres covered in a day by manual labourers. On an average, nearly 8-10 lakh labourers are engaged in cane harvesting in the state.
A meeting of the Western India Sugar Mills (WISMA) and Maharashtra State Cooperative Sugar Factories Federation with sugar mill representatives in Marathwada, Sangli, Kolhapur and Karnataka was held in Sangli on Wednesday to discuss the situation.
BB Thombare, chairman, WISMA, said factories have agreed to increase harvesting charges by Rs 100 to Rs 450 per tonne for harvesters and Rs 400 per tonne for manual labour. Mills have also agreed to provide around 200 harvesters, he said.
Mills in Sangli and Kolhapur, the traditional sugar belt of Maharashtra, have ended their season, but factories in Pune, Solapur, Marathwada and Ahmednagar are still crushing cane. “We have, however, asked farmers to harvest cane on their own to ensure that it is cut in time. The recovery of cane has already reduced by 1% due to high heat, which could cause a loss of Rs 250 per tonne for the farmer,” Thombare said.
Prakash Naiknavare, MD, National Federation of Cooperative Sugar Factories, said the chairman of the federation held a virtual meeting with stakeholders from other states, seeking harvesters for Maharashtra. Mills from Gujarat, Karnataka and Chattisgarh have agreed to supply harvesters, and they are likely to reach Maharashtra by the end of the month.
Sugar commissioner Shekhar Gaikwad said they are making efforts to ensure that sugarcane is crushed by May 31. The crushing season in Maharashtra generally lasts for 120 to 140 days, and maximum 145 days. This year, around 20 sugar factories will run for 160 days due to high sugarcane production, he said.
There is high availability of sugarcane cutting labourers in Beed, hence vehicles loaded with the produce are crowding outside factories, he said. In contrast, Jalna is facing a shortage of labourers, hence there is less crop cutting there and factories have to wait for workers to get the cane crushed.
Mills have demanded a subsidy of Rs 7 per km to transport sugarcane beyond 50 km. The state government is considering a proposal that has fixed the subsidy at Rs 5 per km. If it is approved, the government would have to shell out `10 crore.
This season, mills in Maharashtra are expected to produce record high amount of sugar. Till date, 198 mills that have started the season have crushed 122.8 million tonne of cane and produced 12.81 million tonne of sugar. Maharashtra is expected to cross 13.5 million tonne in sugar production and crush 130 million tonne of cane by the time the season ends.