Bikau Mandal [ Photo: Keshab Thoker/ Graphics: Kamal Subedi]
KATHMANDU, Dec 13: Some sugarcane farmers came to Kathmandu around this time a year ago. It was neither a religious trip to Pashupatinath nor a holiday tour to the federal capital of the country. The farmers had something to say to the government. Something they had been demanding from their home districts in the southern parts of the country. Realizing that the core of the country’s administration rarely listens to the voices from beyond the Maitighar Mandala, in the heart of the capital, they braved the cold and came to Kathmandu. They had to say to the government, “Please, get our dues from the sugar mills settled at the earliest. We are starving. Moneylenders are frequently asking for the money we borrowed from them.”
“Mill owners took our canes, processed them to sugar, sold it and earned lucrative profits. However, we are still empty-handed. We are neck-deep into debt as we have borrowed money from the local moneylenders and financial institutions.”
The sole demand which they presented before the government last year has not been addressed yet. Most of those who visited Kathmandu a year ago have come here again. They still have the same thing to ask for. “We want nothing but the price of our sweet sweat.”
Following their two-week long sit-in protest at the Maitighar last year, the government committed to addressing their concerns. They had an agreement with the government on January 3. They were assured that their outstanding dues would be cleared by January 21. They were hopeful in the sense that the government, which they considered to be their guardian, would not deceive them like those unscrupulous sugar mill operators.
However, their plight did not change. They knocked at multiple doors with a hope of due clearance after the committed deadline crossed. And, after a year, they are at the same place with the same problem and demanding the same thing -- clearance of their years long (some of them have not been paid for six years) dues to be settled by the sugar mills.
Hari Shyam Raya, the secretary of the Sugarcane Farmers Struggle Committee, said that the sugar mill operators owe as much as Rs 900 million to the farmers. Some of them were paid during this period, which, they said, was fairly inadequate to clear their dues.
Records at the Ministry of Industry, Commerce and Supplies, however, show that the farmers are yet to receive Rs 481 million from four sugar producers, namely Shree Ram Sugar Mill, Annapurna Sugar Mill, Indira Sugar Mill and Lumbini Sugar Mill. Although the crushing season has already begun for this year, these sugar mills have not paid the farmers’ outstanding dues of the past six years.
A 62-year-old man, Bikau Mandal was one among the farmers who have to launch a bitter struggle for the price of their sweet produce, at the Maitighar Mandala on the first day of their protest on Sunday which will continue for uncertain period as they are firmly determined to go back to their homes only after getting their dues paid. He has visited Kathmandu twice. The unfortunate thing is, both his visits to Kathmandu are for getting his voice heard by the government.
However, the situation this year is different. COVID-19 fears have grappled the world. The capital city can be no exception here. Other 100 famers with him, however, say that hunger is deadlier than the disease. “We cannot starve to death,” said Mandal, adding that the Annapurna Sugar Mill owes Rs 50 thousand to him. “It may be a petty amount for others. But, can’t I get the price of my sweat?” he asks, without any answer. “We can’t rely on this government. But this time, I won’t go back without getting my hard-earned price for my harvest.”
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Bikau, who had planted sugarcane in his two-bigha land last year, did not plant the crop this year. “The major cash crop which yields good value is sugarcane, but the sugar mills deceive us. So, I did not bother planting it and begging for the price of my hard work,” a deep despair could be felt as he talked to Republica at Maitighar on Sunday.
Rajendra Mandal, another farmer from Sarlahi who too is in his sixties, cannot make an excuse of the cold and corona to travel to the capital city as he has to collect Rs 300 thousand from Shree Ram Sugar Mill. “I haven’t been able to send the children in my family to school as I don’t have money. Still the mill would not pay me,” he said.
“There is shivering cold in Kathmandu. We are staying at Gaushala on the Pashupatinath premises.” According to him, the sugar mill is yet to pay him dues for the past seven years.
The farmers do not have any huge demand. They are urging the government to implement the five-point deal reached with them last year.
Earlier in January, Deputy Prime Minister Ishwor Pokharel, Minister for Industry, Commerce and Supplies, Lekhraj Bhata and Agricultulture and Livestock Development Minister Ghanashyam Bhusal had assured the farmers of the clearance of the dues. But the bitter reality is the farmers are yet to be paid for their sweet crop.