SMALL farmers, particularly from south Punjab, have been staging protests in the provincial capital for the last many years to draw authorities’ attention to their plight.

This previous week sugarcane growers from south Punjab descended on Lahore with plans to lay a siege to the Punjab Assembly in an attempt to make their voices heard on the relocation of some sugar mills.

The Lahore High Court (LHC) has recently ordered the transfer of Ittehad, Chaudhry and Haseeb Waqas sugar mills from Bahawalpur, Rahim Yar Khan and Muzaffargarh, respectively, to central Punjab, where these units were originally set up.

One group wants the mills to stay where they are while the other argues that approaching the Supreme Court is the right course of action instead of taking to the streets

The verdict was given on the plea that shifting the mills to cotton-growing areas in violation of the relevant law would hit the crop as the growing of the water-guzzling cane to meet crushing demand for the mills will increase moisture in the atmosphere and thus invite pest attacks.

However, the farming community became divided on the issue. One group led by Chaudhry Anwer of the Pakistan Kissan Ittehad (PKI), a representative body of small farmers, opted for coming on roads.

An advertisement was published in some Urdu dailies in Multan inviting cane growers to demonstrate outside the Punjab Assembly on Oct 16. They feared that relocating mills at the onset of the cane crushing season would hurt financial interests of the growers who had sown the crop.

The protesters blocked Multan Road, one of the main arteries connecting central Punjab with its southern part, creating pressure on almost all roads.

The farmers were demanding that the shifting of the mills should be delayed, at least for the time being, to prevent sugarcane growers from losses who had already sown the crop for this season.

The protest ended only on the assurance that Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif would give audience to a representative delegation of the demonstrators and would promise to do his best for resolving the issue.

Despite agreeing that the immediate relocation of the mills would ruin the cane growers, the main PKI leadership distanced itself from the protest.

Its president Khalid Mahmood Khokhar argues that “the mills relocation orders have been given by a court of law [i.e. the LHC] and not by any executive authority. Therefore, approaching the appellate authority [Supreme Court] is the right course of action while protesting on roads is against decorum of the judiciary”.

Moreover, there’s a group of farmers which doesn’t buy the argument that the mills’ relocation will harm cane growers’ interests.

“The transfer of the mills won’t cause any problem to the growers, as there is already a sugar mill every 70 kilometres in south Punjab,” Agri Forum Pakistan’s Rao Akhtar says. “Growers may easily transport their crop to any nearby unit. Moreover, the crop may also be hauled to sugar mills in Sukkur and Ghotki districts of Sindh.”

There’s also a political angle to the story. Mr Khokhar alleges that the demonstration had been organised at the behest of the mill owners, the Sharifs.

He claims that the son of Abbas Sharif — late brother of ousted prime minister Nawaz Sharif — arranged the protest through funding and other facilities to create social pressure for keeping the mills where they are.

The PKI president apprehends that politicising the matter will ultimately damage the cause of the cane growers in particular and the agricultural sector in general.

The main problem troubling the farming community as a whole is the costly farm inputs, he says, and urges all groups to give attention to this issue and avoid diverting focus of the government, which “already lacks the will to reform the agriculture sector”, one of the largest employers of the country’s unskilled labour force.

Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, October 23rd, 2017

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