The Maharashtra government is going all out to ensure that sugar mills in the state begin crushing cane in the new season on time. The government has decided to offer government guarantees worth R150 crore to around 22 sugar cooperatives, which have slid into negative net worth, to enable these mills to be able to raise finances for their pre-seasonal requirements.
The casual cane workers, however, have thrown a spanner in the works and have threatened to stop mills from crushing unless their pending demands are met. The workers have been agitating for a rise in wages since last year.
The new crushing season is expected to begin on October 15.
Chandrakant Patil, Maharashtra minister for coperation told FE that the government has decided to give government guarantees to cooperative mills since their balance sheets are in the red. “There are around 41 mills across the state which have slid to negative net worth and will require guarantees worth Rs 245 crore. Of these 22 are cooperative mills. The government has decided to stay away from offering guarantees to private mills,” he said, without divulging reasons.
Maharashtra has shown willingness to give government guarantees to those sugar mills that have been refused loans by banks. The state government had stopped offering government guarantee to sugar mills after 2003 when a drought and crash in sugar prices led to loan defaults by mills and the institutions had invoked government guarantee.When contacted, Vipin Sharma, Maharashtra sugar commissioner, said work is in progress on compiling the proceedings of the meeting held in Mumbai and the appropriate GR will be issued soon.
Shrirang Bhange, state secretary of the Maharashtra Ustod Kamgar Vahtuk Majoor Sanghatana, which looks into issues related to sugar workers, said workers have decided to agitate and will not cut cane this season unless their demands are met. A decision to this effect was taken a meet held in Pathardi taluka in Ahmednagar. Around 15 lakh workers are expected to be part of this agitation, Bhange said.
Workers have been agitating for a rise in wages to Rs 400 per tonnes as against the existing wages of Rs 190 per tonne, he said. A couple of workers can cut upto 2 tonne of cane a day, while a harvester can cut upto 60 tonne per day. Sugar factories are now increasingly opting for harvesters since manual labour has become an issue. The number of harvesters has gone up to 192 from 126 in the earlier season.Significantly, the workers who had threatened to agitate before the start of the season last year went back on the decision since the organisation is affiliated to the BJP that has come to power in the state. Bhange, however, pointed out that the government has reneged on its promises and has not kept its word. The workers’ organisation claim support from Maharashtra minister Pankaja Munde who also owns a sugar mill.
When asked to comment on this issue, Patil said that the government had last year announced in the legislative assembly that mills would give a 20% interim hike to workers.
“However sugar prices fell and mills have not been able raise funds even for making Fair and Remunerative Price ( FRP) payments to farmers. Therefore, the question of raising worker wages did not arise. The government can also intervene only to a certain extent and has already gone out of its way to help the industry right from scrapping purchase tax, incentives on sugar export, paying interest on the soft loan. Now workers have threatened to agitate,” he explained.
The workers’ organisation has demanded identity cards for all workers and inclusion under labour laws of the state.
Bhange said the workers should also be given insurance of R5 lakh on the lines of the insurance given to construction workers in the state. He also said the workers should be given pension of R5,000 a month on retirement. Workers have been demanding adivasi ashram schools for their children. Workers usually leave their homes for a period of 6 months to work with contractors. This time, sugar mills have made it clear that the it will be difficult for them to give advances to contractors as well.
According to Bhange, around 3 lakh new unorganised workers have been added to Maharashtra’s casual labour force that works during the crushing season.