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Cane fury in Pawar hub

- Two farmers die in protests for hike, state stays off

Mumbai/Nagpur, Nov. 12: Two farmers were killed today after a protest by sugarcane farmers demanding higher prices turned violent in western Maharashtra, a stronghold of Sharad Pawar’s NCP that controls much of the region’s sugar factories.

The agitation came to a head after Raju Shetty, an Independent Kolhapur MP spearheading the agitation and seen as a Pawar critic, was arrested at Indapur in Pune, a day after angry farmers set fire to the car of state sugar commissioner Vijay Singhal in the same district.

One protester was crushed beneath a truck in Indapur today, while another died after being shot during alleged police firing at Vasawade in neighbouring Kolhapur.

As the protests spread, at least 25 state transport buses were damaged, forcing the utility to cancel over 3,000 services and leaving hundreds stranded on the eve of Diwali. Special inspector-general of police (law and order) Deven Bharti said at least four to five police vehicles were torched and the Pune-Bangalore and Kolhapur-Bangalore highways blocked by the protesters for hours, leading to traffic chaos.

Cane growers led by Shetty, who heads the Swabhimani Shetkari Sanghatana, have been demanding a price of Rs 3,000 per tonne citing drought-induced output falls. They had laid siege to Pawar’s hometown of Baramati, the region’s sugar hub and the Pawar pocket borough, over similar demands last year.

This time, the factories are prepared to pay only Rs 2,300 per tonne and have pointed to financial problems. Shetty has been urging the Congress-NCP government to intervene. But the chief minister, the Congress’s Prithviraj Chavan, has refused to step in saying it was up to the factories to determine the cane price. The crushing season usually starts from November 1 but the ongoing agitation has delayed it.

Sources said last year’s agitation was fanned by the Congress against the NCP in the backdrop of a turf war between the allies.

Technically, cane prices are based on a set of government-determined rates, which serve as the base. The fair and remunerative price (FRP) for cane is declared every year by the Centre but states may add a bonus for the benefit of local farmers in the form of a state-advised price (SAP).

Maharashtra goes by the FRP. The final price is determined by the factory but it cannot be below the FRP. Last November, the farmers had demanded Rs 2,350 tonne against the declared government price of Rs 1,450. The state blinked and granted Rs 1,800-2,050 after more than a month of agitation around Baramati. Chief minister Chavan had played a key role in ending the agitation that had embarrassed the Pawars.

But this time, Chavan and co-operation minister Harshawardhan Patil, also from the Congress, have refused to intervene. They have argued that the government has no role in deciding or paying cane prices, which are determined by prevailing sugar rates, power tariffs and other factors.

By refusing to step in, Chavan has tried to go against a three-decade trend that saw chief ministers bowing to the Pawar-controlled powerful sugar lobby in the region and offer packages so that co-operatives, which run the factories, could pay higher prices to cane growers.

The sources said the Congress’s hands-off approach has come as Shetty, the agitation spearhead, expanded his base in the NCP stronghold.

Pawar, the NCP chief, recently frowned on the current protests saying the cane-growers’ demands for hikes would harm the sugar industry.