ISLAMABAD - The sugarcane farmers Tuesday lashed out at the government and the institutions concerned for their failure to save growers from exploitation by the sugar mills owners.

The farmers said the sugar mills were not paying the price of the sugarcane as per government’s announced rate for 2017-18. “The sugar mills are buying sugarcane at the rate of Rs110 per mound whereas the official rate is Rs180 per mound,” said Haji Rizwan, a farmer from Layyah. He said the mills have appointed middlemen who are buying sugarcane at very low rates and they also do not pay cash and farmers are forced to make repeated visits to get their money. Sugarcane is major cash crop of the country. According to Ministry of Food Security, the sugarcane production was around 81.4 million tons from an area of 1.312 million hectares, in 2016. Farmers alleged that sugar mills mafia was behind the move.

There are around 32 sugar mills from Lahore to Rahim Yar Khan region, and they all are owned by 12-15 families, said Fayyaz Azim of Kissan Ittehad. He said they have made a cartel and they decide a very low rate amicably and farmers are paid according to that.

“These sugar mills have an association; the president of the association announces a rate for the buying of sugarcane that is very low as compared to official arte and every mill buys sugarcane at that rate,” Azim said. He said mills have appointed their representatives who buy from the farmers at nominal price and pay after two days to one month.

Farmers from Rajan Pur said that the mills did not issue permits to the small farmers. As per procedure, sugar mills issue buying permits to farmers as per their cultivated land. But sugar mills have not issued permits to small farmers and farmers have no option but to sell their crop to middleman or mill representative at a throw away price of Rs100-105 per mound, said Rao Afsar, an official of small farmers association.

He said Punjab government has directed the local Deputy Commissioners and Assistant Commissioners to ensure provision of permits to small farmers but the local government is helpless in front of powerful sugar mills mafia, which is backed by top politicians of the country.

The farmers demanded PTI chief Imran Khan to take the notice of the issue as along with ruling party influential stalwarts, Jehangir Khan Tarin is also one of the owners of a sugar mill, exploiting farmers in southern Punjab.

Farid Khan, another farmer, pointed out that during 2010, when sugar was sold at Rs35 per kilo the rate of per mound sugarcane was Rs.300 but now when sugar was being sold at Rs 60 per kilo the per maund rate of sugarcane was only Rs110 which was a grave injustice with the farmers, who put their blood, sweat and money into land and work hard for more than half of a year on the crop.

Farmers representatives demanded the government that to stop exploitation of farmers they should be allowed to install small scale sugar mills. “In our neighboring countries there are small scale sugar mills which are run by farmers – this is the quick way to empower sugarcane farmers,” said Fayyaz, official of Kissan Ittehad. The farmers also criticized Competition Commission of Pakistan, which has failed to act against the cartel of the sugar mills mafia.

When contacted, the CCP officials promised to get back on the matter. However, it is pertinent to mention that in 2011 the Commission found the sugar mills guilty of anti-competitive behaviour and collusive activity that hurt consumers and restricted new entrants into the market and imposed a maximum penalty of Rs75 million.

In its provisional inquiry report- CCP reportedly revealed that sugar mills association (PSMA) – a group of 81 sugar mills – was found involved in preventing, restricting and reducing competition in the sugar industry along with rigging and influencing the government to restrict the entry of new players in the market. Despite all media hype the Commission has yet to take any action against the cartel.