12 Nov 2023  |   06:38am IST

Bitter taste for Sugarcane Farmers

Sanjivani, the only sugar factory in the State at Dayanandnagar-Dharbandora, stopped crushing sugarcane three years ago due to mechanical problems and shortage of sugarcane. Today it has turned into a white elephant with continued government apathy and neglect. The decision to close down Sanjivani has affected not just the sugarcane farmers, but also the factory labourers, transport contractors and other workers who were dependent on the factory. The government has given only mixed signals on whether the factory will be re-opened or not but has promised to restart the factory but the process so far has been sluggish which has confused the sugarcane producers. ALFRED FERNANDES finds out that while a large number of farmers dependent on the sugar factory are in distress and are looking at a bleak future, some of them however have decided against waiting for the ethanol plant to come up, instead, they have started growing different cash crops like areca nut and coconut in their fields
Bitter taste for  Sugarcane Farmers

Sanjivani Sahakari Sakhar Karkhana, Goa’s only sugar factory, was set up in 1972 by the first Chief Minister of Goa Dayanand Bandodkar at Dharbandora in South Goa. It had an excellent track record in the initial stages with many farmers engaged in production of sugarcane for supplying it to the sugar factory.

The sugar plant, however, went into losses in the last one decade or more and three years ago its operations were stopped by the government, stating it was not viable to operate. It was told at that time that after operations are stopped a new plant will be installed, which would also give a by-product named ethanol.

Union Minister Nitin Gadkari during the Assembly election campaign in 2017 had stressed the need to generate fuel from farm products. He had said that the alternate fuel can be generated from rice straw, wheat straw, cotton, straw and bagasse (used sugarcane waste). This has given hope to sugarcane farmers that the factory will grow and they will get good opportunities to sell their produce. However, their hopes have been dashed as the plant for producing ethanol is still not at sight.

Now the fallout of this situation is that over 900 farmers from Sanguem, who were largely dependent only on sugar cane cultivation, have been facing very difficult times since the Sanjivani Sugar Factory stopped producing sugar. In fact, with the Goa government failing to set up the proposed ethanol plant, the sugarcane farmers even warned the government that it won’t be allowed to “grab Sanjivani sugar factory land” for other projects.

Farmers associated with the Sanjivani Sugar Factory are upset over the government's failure to set up the ethanol plant. They  feel  cheated. The farmers said the government should clear its stand in writing about the future of this factory.

Harshad Prabhudessai, a progressive farmer from Netravali who used to supply around 1,300 tonnes of cane to the factory, managed to produce only around 800 tonnes just before the factory was closed. He accused the government of giving step motherly treatment to cane farmers in Goa.

“There will be a real crisis if the factory does not start the ethanol plant by next year at least,” he said, while very clearly accusing the government of not taking this issue as seriously as it ought to have been dealt with.

He said the small farmers cultivating areas ranging from 4,000 to 10,000 sq mts, will be worst affected if the factory does not resume purchasing cane from Goan farmers.

“It is not very easy for a farmer to shift from cultivating a cash crop like sugarcane to some other crop like areca nut, coconut or cashew,” he said.

He pointed out that while sugarcane can be harvested within a year, with other plantations there is a long waiting period before the yielding begins.

“A farmer has to wait for seven to eight years before he can sell his produce in other crops,” he said in contrast to sugarcane which is harvested every year while pointing out that small farmers cannot suddenly wait for such long periods to start earning something.

“The five-year period that the government had assured for compensating sugarcane farmers ends next year and there is still no clear sign of the sugar factory resuming and in such a situation, what is the poor farmer expected to do,” he asked.

 “Seeing the mess that has gripped the sugar factory over the years, I have converted around 20 acres of my sugarcane farm to areca nut and coconut plantations,” he said.

When Goa’s first chief minister late Dayanand Bandodkar started the sugar factory at Dharbandora, Goan farmers provided 13,532 tonnes of cane, which increased to 55,000 tonnes by 1978. Even though sugarcane production increased in Goa, the factory suffered losses, which stood at Rs 8 crore in 1996, forcing the government to take over its management.

However, the losses continued even after the government took over its management and in 2020, the sugar factory had losses amounting to a whopping Rs 120 crore when the government closed it down to change the machinery and set up an Ethanol plant.

At that time, the government promised the farmers that it would rejuvenate the plant or set up an Ethanol plant and till date it is not clear what the government is doing and when the plant will resume operations,

The government set up a 23-member Sugarcane Farmer Facilitation Committee under the chairmanship of Narendra Sawaikar, the former Member of Parliament, to look into the grievances of the farmers and to work out the modalities to install the Ethanol plant at the factory.

“The committee has prepared a plan and sent it to the government and it is up to the government now to take a call on installing the Ethanol Plant,” said Sawaikar.

Francisco Mascarenhas, member of the Sugarcane Farmers Association and who used to supply around 300 tonnes of cane to the factory, disclosed that when the factory started, there were 992 registered sugarcane farmers with the factory.

“However, seeing the manner in which the factory was being managed, many farmers opted for other crops and the factory was left with only around 600 registered Goan sugarcane farmers,” he said while fearing that the number will further reduce if the government continues to behave in the lackadaisical manner.

As the period during which the government had promised to compensate the farmers is going to end next year, farmers are now wondering what their future will be.

“This will be the death of sugarcane farming in Goa and farmers who used to cultivate sugarcane will be in turmoil,” opined Mascarenhas.

While cautioning that with no means of earning their livelihood, Goa may also witness farmers committing suicide, Mascarenhas said the government should restart the sugar factory as soon as possible.

Kushta Gaonkar from Kurdi Vaddem who used to cultivate sugarcane, failing to see revival of cane crushing in the immediate future, has shifted to arecanut and coconut farming.

“As the government was only giving empty promises, I changed my crop four years ago,” he said, saying he would have landed in severe financial problems if he did not make the change.

It may be recalled that Goa Pradesh Congress President Amit Patkar had charged the government of only giving false promises to farmers and dealing with the issue without any foresight.

“Failure to address this grave problem and not installing the Ethanol plant will result in increasing the unemployment figure in the State,” he said.

He said living in Goa has become very difficult for the common man and warned of sugarcane cultivators being forced to take to the streets shortly if the situation does not change.

“The farmers are struggling to survive since the factory closed down and they will have no recourse but to take to the streets to awaken this dormant government,” he said.

“It is not only the farmers who are affected by the sugar factory closure, but even co-operative societies are facing hard times,” said Manoj Paryekar, Director of Kurdi Vividh Vikas Sahakari Co-operative Society.

He pointed out that these co-operative societies used to give soft loans to farmers, which they would replay after receiving payment from the sugar factory.

“These transactions have come to a grinding halt now since the factory is closed,” he said while adding that even other businesses have slowed down as the spending capacity of the villagers has declined drastically.

“Repayment of the loans is badly affected and the prospects of many loans turning into non-performing assets looms large,” he said.

Farmers who continue to cultivate sugarcane, supply their produce to sugarcane factories in neighbouring Kolhapur and Belagavi districts. Contractors from these places come to Goa during the harvesting season with harvesters to collect the cane.

The contractors contact individual farmers and purchase the cane at the rate of Rs 800 to 900 per tonne, as the contractor bears the cost of harvesting and transporting.

Josinho D’Costa, another farmer, sees no future for sugarcane farming in Goa and said it was time to shift to alternate crops. “However, small farmers will find it difficult to make this change, given the cost involved and the time it takes to get the yield,” he said.

He admitted that there is no crop as lucrative as sugarcane as it gives quick income and the amount that could be earned is calculated in advance, he said.

“However, with other crops, this is not possible as one cannot know in advance at what rate the produce would be purchased,” he said.

He said it was time the government pulled up its socks and got its act together so that it can fulfil the promises made to the farmers while closing down the sugar factory.


Idhar Udhar