LAHORE - The Punjab government is going to start legal proceedings to confiscate properties of about a dozen sugar mills in the province that failed to clear the outstanding dues worth Rs 2.2 billion of cane growers.

There are reportedly about nine defaulting sugar mills out of total over 40, including Chishtia Sugar Mills, Sargodha, Abdullah Sugar Mills, Okara, Abdullah-II Sugar Mills, Sargodha, Haseeb Waqas Sugar Mills, Nankana Sahib, Colony Sugar Mills, Khanewal, Shakar Ganj–I Sugar Mills, Jhang, Shakkar Ganj–II Sugar Mills, Jhang, Hussain Sugar Mills, Faisalabad, and Brother Sugar Mills, Kasur.

The Punjab government, through an ordinance, has empowered the cane commissioner to determine liability of sugar mill owners and confiscate their property to pay outstanding amount of the cane growers.

Earlier, the cane commissioner was not that much powerful to determine sugar mills liability and direct the district collector concerned to act under the Punjab Land Revenue Act, 1967. to confiscate property to make payments.

Amir Mukhtar, a sugarcane grower from Bahawalpur, while commenting on the ordinance, said auctioning sugar mills to clear the dues of farmers is not enough; the government should consider arresting them and selling their properties to clear dues of farmers, he said, adding the government has taken a right step to penalise sugar mills mafia to safeguard farmers’ rights. He said majority of the mill owners are politicians who sit in assemblies and block every effort the administration starts against them. The sugar barons are of the habit of exploit cane tillers, Mukhtar held. He also called the ordinance PML-N’s newfound love for farmers that were earlier ignored by the current regime.

Responding to a query on the Punjab government’s move, a Sugar Mills Owners Association representative said they are not aware of the amended law. “After a thorough consultation, we will be able to react. The association will decide further line of action, including protest or litigation, on Thursday,” he held.

When contacted, Punjab Dr Cane Commissioner Nasir Bashir said, “The Punjab government’s step is pro-farmers that would force the sugar mill owners to pay the outstanding amount within stipulated period of two weeks. The owners, by using different tactics, delayed the payments of the growers who had to run from pillar to post for their recoveries.

Talking about the current year payments, the commissioner said, “Out of total Rs 134 billion the sugar mills have to pay Rs 2.2 billion”. Despite all-out efforts of the Punjab government and the courts’ rulings, sugarcane growers could not get their dues,” he said. The small farmers have to suffer because of the odd attitude of the mill owners.

An officer of the food department on the condition of anonymity said, “The vague law gave birth to litigation, so the government had to amend the law through the ordinance to protect farming community’s rights”. He said that earlier, there was no mechanism of payments if the owners were not paid their dues within fixed time.

The mill owners had the stance that the cane commissioner was not empowered by the law to force them to pay the outstanding amount. Using one tactic or the other, they delayed the payments that forced the farmers to stage protests. The farmers’ concerns were also raised in the Punjab Assembly by some legislators.

It was a common practice among the sugar mills that they used various tactics to delay payments to growers that disturbed the economic cycle of the farming community.

Though, the higher courts had directed the government to ensure payments to the sugarcane growers, there was no written provision of law.

Through an amended law, Punjab Sugar Factories Control (Amendment) Ordinance 2015, the cane commissioner was empowered by the government to use powers of the collector that usually are enjoyed by the district commissioners.

Punjab Sugar Factories Control (Amendment) Ordinance 2015 was also notified in the gazette that amended the Sugar Factories Control Act 1950, sections 6, and 21. Sugar Mills assets will be confiscated and sold on the recommendation of the cane commissioner to pay arrears of sugarcane farmers.

As per the ordinance, the respective district collector will ensure debts under Punjab Land Revenue Act, 1967. Moreover, penalty amount has also been revised from Rs 50,000 to Rs 0.5 million.

Under the law, it is prerogative of the provincial government to determine minimum price to be paid by the factories or purchasing agents for cane. Under the law, the occupier of a factory or a purchasing agent shall not make any deduction from the amount due for the cane sold to him by a cane grower. Earlier, the fine was only Rs 50,000 that was increased to Rs 0.5m. The amended law is expected to be tabled in the house for legislation, the officer said.