MULTAN-The sugarcane harvesting and trading have come to a complete halt across the country following the circulation of sugar mills’ closure news, The Nation has learnt.

Pakistan Kissan Ittehad (PKI) President Khalid Khokhar confirmed that the sugarcane growers have stopped harvesting their crop. “We have confirmed reports that the sugar mills have stopped purchasing sugarcane and their owners have decided to shut down their mills,” he added while talking to The Nation.

With the reports making rounds in growers’ circles of South Punjab regarding closure of over 30 sugar mills, the sugarcane crisis has further worsened and growers threatened on Tuesday to commit suicides and burn their standing crops if the issues like resumption of purchase and crushing at the mills as well as support price were not resolved forthwith.

The government had recently announced support price for sugarcane at Rs190 for 40kg with an increase of Rs10 in old price. However, the growers rejected the price and warned that they would prefer burning their crop to selling it out at this price. “We had demanded Rs225 per 40kg while they announced mere Rs190 which the growers rejected instantly,” Mr Khokhar said.

The rural poverty in Pakistan is likely to take another leap due to looming sugarcane crisis. A 2018 World Bank report revealed that 80 percent of Pakistan’s poor already live in rural areas and the number is likely to soar. The report titled ‘State of Water Supply, Sanitation and Poverty in Pakistan’ claims that the poverty head count rate in rural Pakistan is double than urban areas — 36pc versus 18pc.

The sugarcane crisis has surfaced at a time when the country is already facing cotton issue. A fortnightly cotton report released by the Pakistan Cotton Ginners Association (PCGA) disclosed today that 0ver 1.9 million less bales reached the ginning factories, indicating 20.49 per cent shortfall in cotton production. “Last year the factories had received 9366936 bales till December 2 while this year just 7447544 bales reached the ginneries,” the report added.

PCGA Chairman Javed Suhail Rehmani warned that besides hitting the growers and ginners, this shortfall would directly impact country’s GDP and foreign exchange reserves as cotton was major cash crop of Pakistan.

Talking to The Nation during a survey, Tariq Naem Shah, a grower from Muzaffargarh, was of the opinion that the millers blackmailed the grower to sell out his produce at throw away price. “All of these tactics are meant to pressurize us. The support price announced by the government is already far below than our demand and we refused to accept it. Now the exploiters have come up with another idea to force us to sell our produce at their wanted rate,” he maintained. He was of the opinion that the motive behind shutting down the mills was to give a threat to the farmers.

Another grower from Bahawalpur area namely Malik Muzaffar pointed out that all the farmers who had sowed sugarcane on the land acquired on lease would face heavy losses due to low support price. “Last year we bought Urea at Rs1,300 per bag and this year it is at Rs2,040. DAP’s last year rate was Rs2,300 and today it is available at Rs3,700. The rate for electricity unit for tube wells has soared to Rs12 per unit from Rs5.35,” he added while giving price comparison. “The sugar price has gone up by Rs20 per kg in one year while on the other hand, the government has increased sugarcane price for per 40 kg by just Rs10,” he lamented, declaring it injustice.

Faraz Ahmad, another small grower from Layyah disclosed that the average expense on each acre stood at Rs150,000 while what he was likely to get back from the buyers was merely Rs50,000. “We keep our events pending for this time. The marriages of our children, sale and purchase of land and vehicles, educational expenses of kids everything is done with the money we get from the sale of our produce,” he pointed out.

Leader of another grower organization Chaudhry Anwar warned that the prevailing situation had brought the poor farmers on the verge of bankruptcy. He pointed out that some growers acquired land on lease while others got loans and sowed sugarcane in a hope to earn some profit but low price and halting of purchase process brought farmers to a do or die stage.

Citing an example, he said that last year a sugarcane grower in Qasoor district set entire of his crop ablaze and jumped into the fire to commit suicide against what the growers described as protest against sugar mills’ exploitation. “Neither can the farmers pay off their loans nor able to sow next crop due to shortage of money. If the government does not intervene to protect the interest of farmers, likewise incidents will take place across the country,” he warned.

He claimed that majority of sugar mills were owned by powerful politicians while poor farmers were highly vulnerable. “I demand the government to increase sugarcane price and fix it at Rs225 per 40 kg besides allowing installation of mini sugar mills in the country. It will end the monopoly of mill mafia and protect farmers’ from their exploitation,” he demanded.