Bitter taste of sugar

Published January 3, 2015
.—Reuters/File
.—Reuters/File

SUGAR mill owners in Sindh are up in arms again in what is turning out to be one of the most troubled sugarcane crushing seasons in recent memory.

They are demanding that the price of sugarcane be set at Rs155 per 40kg after the Sindh government notified Rs182 via a notification issued on Dec 9, 2014.

The dispute between the mill owners and the growers has been simmering for months. Thus far, the provincial government has see-sawed between the two because both have strong representation within the provincial assembly and strong lobbies within the ruling party, although it seems that the growers’ lobby in the government is bigger.

Also read: Sindh raises support prices of sugarcane, wheat

Unable to decide firmly, the government had first notified Rs182 as the price, then capitulated to the protests of the mill owners and revised it to Rs155, only to submit once again when the growers raised a hue and cry — within days it changed the price back to Rs182.

Meanwhile, procurement of the crop has been massively disrupted across the province as many mills have delayed firing up their boilers and refused to procure sugarcane at the government price.

Now, less than three weeks following the last notification of the procurement price at Rs182, the mill owners are mounting a renewed campaign to bring the price down to Rs155 again, threatening a shutdown of all crushing activity.

Their petition asking the Sindh High Court to intervene has been dismissed, and they are now planning to approach the Supreme Court with their grievances.

This is a surprising threat coming from them, considering the right to set sugarcane procurement prices has been properly devolved to the provinces via the 18th Amendment.

Additionally, sugar mills in Punjab have had no such issue and crushing has been proceeding steadily throughout the province with a procurement price of Rs180. This makes it difficult to understand why mill owners in Sindh cannot make things work at the same price.

The Sindh government needs to stop vacillating and exercise its mandate with more autonomy and more decisiveness than it has been doing so far.

More swings in setting the price are not acceptable. While the Sindh High Court has dismissed the petition of the mill owners, the provincial government still needs to justify its earlier action of changing the fixed price more than once.

If the government decides to favour the growers over the mill owners, it will also have to keep the interests of the consumers in mind.

Published in Dawn, January 3rd, 2015

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