Sugarcane stir may cut Mumbai's milk supply by half

The bitter battle over sugarcane prices between farmers and the local administration in Western Maharashtra shows no signs of slackening. In fact, the stormy situation looks set to escalate into a whiteout with cooperative federations, engaged in milk procurement and transportation, deciding to back the protesters. 

Swabhimani Shetkari Sanghatana members, Sangli-Solapur highway
Bitter battle: The wreckage left behind by the Swabhimani Shetkari Sanghatana members after they vandalised a bus stop at Sangli-Solapur highway. Pic/Hansraj Patil

So, while Pune, Satara, Sangli and Kolhapur districts have been witnessing violent agitations by local farmers who have resorted to traffic jams, arson and stone throwing, now milk supply to Mumbai and adjoining areas is also likely to be hit. Dairy units in Western Maharashtra deliver large quantities of milk to the metropolis.

Shree Naik, president of state milk distributors and transporters sangh, said, “I spoke to my counterparts in Kolhapur who informed me that since the last two days milk procurement has been stopped to condemn the arrest of Raju Shetty, MP and chief of Swabhimani Shetkari Sanghatana. This will definitely have an impact on supply of milk to Mumbai city. Kolhapur, Satara and Sangli take care of nearly 50 per cent of the city’s milk requirements. Major brands like Gokul, Warana, Krishna, and Govind have already instructed their tankers not to take the Kolhapur-Pune-Mumbai highway and these vehicles are instead plying by the Ratnagiri-Mumbai highway. If the government does not take a decision soon, even milk producers and distributors, who have been demanding a price hike and increased commission for the last six months, will join the agitation and then things may get out of hand.”

Vijay Kamble, additional director general (traffic), said, “We have provided police escorts for milk vehicles, which have been asked to move in groups. Also, in case there are any disruptions on a particular stretch of the highway, cops have been instructed to reroute and proceed to the destinations.”

Mahavir Akote, a trusted aide of Raju Shetty, said since the last two days milk procurement and transportation has been affected largely because of the rasta roko and violent protests. “No milk procurement has been reported in Satara, Sangli and Kolhapur districts as agitators halted traffic movement. A district like Kolhapur usually records daily collection of 9 to 10 lakh litres. We, under the Swabhimani milk brand collect one lakh litres every day, which was also affected in the last two days. On Wednesday too we have decided to intensify our agitation, which may result into traffic jams and affect movement of milk vans. Our campaign is in the interest of sugarcane growers,” Akote said.

Two farmers have died — one of them in police firing —, 18 cops have been injured, and an unspecified number of vehicles have been either damaged or burnt since the agitation turning violent on Monday. Things may not have come to such a pass but for the enduring cold war between ruling allies Congress and Nationalist Congress Party (NCP). A senior Congress leader claimed that Swabhimani Shetkari Sanghatana (SSS) chief Raju Shetty was keen to resolve the issue and communicated the same to top leaders of the grand old party a few days ago. SSS was prepared to start negotiations at Rs 2,300 for every tonne of sugarcane. Shetty even discussed this with Maharashtra Pradesh Congress Committee (MPCC) chief Manikrao Thakre. He then approached cooperation minister Harshwardhan Patil and suggested the latter work out a plan to defuse the crisis. But nothing happened.

Sources said Patil, despite being in-charge of the department responsible for handling issues related to cooperative sugar mills, chose not to intervene. This happened regardless of the fact that protesters had been staging a dharna in his hometown Indapur over the previous six days. It appears he was reluctant to take the initiative. Instead, he had a word with chief minister Prithviraj Chavan, who then met NCP chief and union agriculture minister Sharad Pawar.

What transpired at the meeting is still under wraps, but despite being contacted by Thakre to convey that the Shetty-led organisation was ready to call a truce, Patil failed to react. A group within Congress, say sources, did not arbitrate, which resulted in a large number of cooperative sugar units run by NCP leaders landing in trouble. Western Maharashtra is recognised as NCP’s bastion and any failure to handle such a crisis will affect the party’s political prospects.

The repercussions soon became apparent after the NCP chief and his nephew Ajit Pawar lashed out at Raju Shetty. The party is in a bind, as if the farmers’ demands are met, the credit would go to Shetty, who defeated the NCP candidate during the last Lok Sabha elections. The CM has refused to step in saying the government cannot decide the remunerative price of sugarcane and the onus lies with the sugar units. MPCC chief Thakre backed Chavan saying rates should be determined on the basis of financial and geographical conditions of the sugar mills.

Speaking to MiD DAY, state home minister Satej Patil, who has been in the troubled area since Monday, said, “We had provided adequate police escorts to all the buses traversing from Kolhapur to Konkan and other cities. The situation is under control and enough SRPF platoons and police personnel have been called in to maintain law and order in Satara, Sangli and Kolhapur. It is unfortunate that in the aftermath of the violence, Shiv Sena has called for a bandh on November 14. We have taken sufficient measures to avert any untoward incident. However, political parties should have refrained from calling for a bandh during Diwali, when people want to have fun and visit relatives,” said Patil.

When asked if there is any information about milk supply from these districts to the city getting disrupted, Patil replied in the negative. “As a precautionary step, armed police personnel have been deployed across the highway every 100 metres. In case of any disruption, vehicular moment would be stopped to avoid congestion,” he said. 

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