Meerut, March 9
On a sunny afternoon in Western Uttar Pradesh, a common sight at barren lands alongside highways is quintals of sugarcane loaded on tractor-trollies and some old men keeping guard there to keep the crop safe from stray animals always on the prowl to pull away their share.
Jumma, 72, is one of those old men sitting near a quaint weighing scale along the Ganga canal in Meerut district, constantly keeping a watch on the sugarcane load he has been protecting from stray cattle waiting to be weighed before being sent off to a mill. And the stray cattle population is an ever-increasing one, which many locals across religious lines blame on a ban on their slaughter in the state.
The septuagenarian is aware that a farmers’ movement has been underway on the borders of Delhi, less than 100 kms away, for more than 100 days over three contentious central laws.
He is also concerned that there is no law to guarantee the minimum support price (MSP) for crops, another key issue before protesting farmers, in case some big corporate buyers of agri-produce decide to monopolise the market and decide to throw peanuts before farmers to gobble their crops.
The landless farmworker easily gets involved in discussions over the agitation—which has had ripples in the region that is known for sugarcane—but is not much amused.
His concerns, like that of Akbar Ali, who also has been hired to guard crops against stray animals, go beyond the issues being highlighted in the ongoing stir and the job at his hand gets the maximum priority.
The problem of stray animals damaging crops looms large in the sugarcane-yielding district of Meerut in western Uttar Pradesh where men hired to guard the fields are hoping for better aid for their community from the government.
Jumma said he worked for a central government warehousing corporation where his job largely kept him away from home and around a decade ago he returned to Meerut upon realising that he no longer had the capacity to perform the duty his previous job required him to do.
“Here at my village, I got hired by Nanglamal sugar mill along with some other locals to guard farms and farm produce from stray animals. Initially, it seemed like a fine work that kept me engaged and provided some money too,” he told PTI.
There are five to six private weighing scales around Jani Khurd village where one guard is deployed at each facility to keep a watch on the yields against animals like nilgai, cow, buffalo and wild boar.
There are dozens of sugar mills and hundreds of weighing scales in Meerut and adjoining districts of Muzaffarnagar and Baghpat, according to locals.
These guards, Jumma said, are paid Rs 4,500 per season and the job entails guarding the crop at all times – be it scorching sunlight, chilling winters or rains.
He said all he wants is a round-the-year engagement by the sugar mill, a pay hike and some sort of pension from the government.
Around 50 kilometres from Jani Khurd is Satheri village in Budhana tehsil of Muzaffarnagar, a key district vis-a-vis sugarcane production in north India. Here also, many farmers believe the menace of stray animals and a low-profit margin in agriculture are issues much bigger than those being highlighted in the media about the ongoing protests.
The cost of cultivation—which involves tillage, seed sowing, irrigation and use of fertilisers—is very high now, said Ramesh Chandra (55), a government servant and farm owner in Satheri village.
Labour cost too is a vexing issue.
Landowners say they pay Rs 10 per ‘pully’ (a local word for a bunch of sugarcane crop that is cut off the ground and tied together before being kept aside for loading) to labourers working on fields and the rate goes up to Rs 15 per ‘pully’ during the peak season.
But the menace of stray animals, whose slaughtering has been banned in the state by the BJP-led government, trumps all other woes.
Chandra said farmers in the region have to ensure the protection of their crops from animals themselves. Many farmers collectively hire a guard, while those unable to afford it, have to do it on their own.
“Those who do it on their own stand guard at their fields all the time with a stick in their hand for safety,” Chandra said, claiming that stray animals destroyed high brother’s seven bigha land where he had sown wheat.
Rajkumar Harian (52), who has 40 bigha land among four brothers, said, “People from our village leave their non-productive animals in other villages and vice versa. There is a ban on slaughtering such animals because of which farmers are facing this trouble.”
Chandra said, “As far as Hinduism is considered, I am against slaughtering cattle but if you look at the condition of farmers, they cannot even afford fodder for productive animals, so how will they keep the non-productive ones. For all the damage done to crops, I do not find slaughtering of non-productive animals unreasonable.”
Rajpal Singh (57), another farmer whose wheat crop was damaged by stray animals, said, “If farmers had enough to afford fodder, why would they leave their cattle stray in the first place?”
Talking at dusk on a narrow road outside Satheri with sugarcane fields on both sides, Chandra, Harian and Singh resented that there was no solution in sight for the stray animal menace.
“There are claims of gaushalas being made where stray animals are kept but all these claims are only in words. Nothing is happening on the ground,” Chandra claimed.
Bharatiya Kisan Union’s Meerut unit vice president Subhash Singh said local public representatives and authorities are aware of the issues but nothing could be done so far.
“We, as farmers’ representatives, have time and again highlighted these problems, but it is still not a priority for the government. Sugarcane rates remain unchanged for three years while prices of all other items have risen,” he said.
Thousands of protestors, mainly from Uttar Pradesh, Punjab and Haryana, are camping at Delhi’s three borders since November 2020 demanding that the Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, 2020; Farmers’ (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Act, 2020; and the Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act, 2020 be rolled back and a new law made to guarantee minimum support price for crops.
The government, however, has maintained that the laws are pro-farmer. — PTI