There are five sugar mills in Mandya district that owe farmers Rs 140 crore as of April 1, 2019. Of the five mills, two are run by the government
The village of Sunkatonnur in Mandya district is yet to recover from the death of sugarcane farmer Nandish and his family of three in September last year.
A few days before the family consumed poisoned gobi manchurian, Nandish had met Karnataka Chief Minister HD Kumarasamy regarding mounting farm loans and payment dues from sugar mills.
"It was Kumaraswamy’s inaction that led to his family’s suicide," says a farmer who knew Nandish.
Official records show that Nandish's death is not an isolated one. According to information provided by the Joint Director of Agriculture, Mandya district has seen 158 farmer deaths between 2018 and 2019.
Mandya, 100 km from Bengaluru, is known as the sugar town. It earned the name from miles of plush sugarcane fields spread across the district. It was a sign of prosperity, for sugarcane was the backbone of Mandya’s economy, with over 70 percent of the population involved in cultivating the cash crop.
The district is in focus in the ongoing Lok Sabha elections, as Nikhil Kumaraswamy, grandson of JD(S) supremo HD Deve Gowda, takes on yesteryear actor Sumalatha.
Situated on the banks of river Cauvery, the sugarcane farmers were once a prosperous lot before the decline set in over the last decade.
Mandya now rarely resemblances the prosperous town with vast sugarcane fields of then. It is now dry, barren fields dotting the landscape with shutdown sugar mills and migrating population.
Shambhoonahalli Suresh, district president, Karnataka Rajya Raitha Sangha (KRRS), a farmer association, said, “Farmers here were prosperous close to 10 years ago. There was no concept of loans.”
However, everything started going downhill when a range of issues such as rising sugar imports, increasing cost of cultivation and over-supply followed by falling prices cropped up. In addition, the state faced the worst drought in the last few years, thus affecting production given that sugarcane is a water-intensive crop.
Cauvery is even now a touchy subject for the farmers, who are completely dependent on the water for crop cycles.
For instance, Suresh owns a 20-acre farm. Each acre gives him 50 tonnes of sugarcane for an investment of Rs 5,000 per tonne. “Earlier we used to get Rs 10,000 per tonne. But now we are barely getting Rs 2,600 per tonne fixed by the government,” he added.
Prices began to fall as the supply rose resulting in huge stocks of unsold inventory and continued supply of sugarcane. For instance, Deccan Herald reported that India produced 32 million tonnes of sugar between October 2017 and April 2018, over seven million tonnes more than the country's consumption.
As the unsold inventory mounted, the government was unable to pay the dues to farmers.
There are five sugar mills in Mandya district that owe farmers Rs 140 crore as of April 1, 2019. Of the five mills, two are run by the government. Mysugar factory and cooperative mill Pandavapura Sahakari Sakkare Kharkhane have stopped operation due to outdated machinery.
SN Jayaraman, a sugarcane farmer, said, “I have not been paid dues by the mills for over a year now. Without that, I am forced to take out loans by pledging my wife's jewellery, our land and house.”
The vicious cycle continues, explains Latha Sankar, president of the women's wing of KRRS. “When they don't get the due, farmers are even more in debt with nothing more to pledge. That is when they commit suicide,” Sankar said, recalling the death of Nandish.
Jayaswamy BL does not want his son to get into farming. But he has no money to give him the education that could get him out of town. Another farmer had to postpone his daughter’s wedding until the dues come in.
Komballamma, a labourer, has not got a decent job in recent times. “I get work only during harvest time. With poor harvest, I have not gotten a decent pay in the last few years.”
But it is not like they have any other option. Apart from agriculture, Mandya barely has any other industry despite being in the vantage location between Mysuru and Bengaluru and good connectivity.
When the sugar mills closed, nearly one lakh people were left jobless. As agriculture declined over the last few years, more people gave up farming and migrated to Bengaluru to work as drivers, security guards and house helps.
“Migration is at an all-time high in the district. What other option do we have?” asked Shiva Shankar, a local businessmen.
The government had promised revamp of the mills and payment of dues on time to help the farmers. However, it has not happened yet.
Some farmers are travelling to Bannari in Tamil Nadu to sell their sugarcane stock. “The mills in Bannari pay on time, though it is a little expensive. But something is better than nothing,” said Basavanna N, a farmer.
Since sugarcane is a water-intensive crop, the government officials have recommended growing other crops such as ragi and millets. However, farmers here are unwilling to change, in the hope that next year will be better.
“From my forefathers, we have cultivated sugarcane. How can we change it now?" asked a farmer."Sugar is profitable when the harvest is good. We hope that we will get there someday,” said another farmer, who has a loan of over Rs 10 lakh to repay.