Yogi Sarkar’s Power Push Sweetens Uttar Pradesh’s Sugar Bowl

Yogi Sarkar’s Power Push Sweetens Uttar Pradesh’s Sugar BowlSugarcane being transported (GettyImages)
Snapshot
  • Bijnor stands testament to how electrification can channelise a farmer’s energies and transform his life, with some help from nature.

For the second time in the day, Mahender Singh, 65, is back in the field with his spade. He is shaping a water channel, connecting the tube well outlet and a field. He says, "This luxury and scenario, of irrigating lands without requiring to compromise on our sleep and rest hours over drying crops, is only a year old. We were stretching ourselves and our resources to see a good crop over poor irrigation - a direct result of the ailing power supply." The first stream of water gushes from the tube well, dusts through the warm soil and meanders into the furrows.

This year, the crushing season has sweetened the sugar bowl, as any sugarcane farmer or his kin, born in Bijnor, Uttar Pradesh, likes to call the fertile district and region, known for sugarcane and mill rich hubs and neighbourhood. The effect of improved electricity supply, from six to eight hours a day, to, roughly 16 hours a day, electrification, changing of transformers, better distribution of electricity, can be seen on ground. Electrification and improved electricity supply have sweetened conversations on the field and on weighing scales installed by sugar mills.

I chew on a wheat stem and Mahender's mention to "sleep" and "rest", which, at the beginning of my conversation with him, sounds a bit poetic. Three hours from the point Mahender, land owner and farmer on Hapur Road, in Bijnor, west Uttar Pradesh, allows me into his fields, water will do its magic, unmonitored, flowing like silver in black and brown of soil and night. "Now, we toil during the day, go back home and sleep during the nights, return in the mornings, to make irrigation corrections on the field," Mahender adds. The mention to "sleep" and "rest" filters down - as coarse as the sound of his spade.

Satender on his field before and after the good crop
Satender on his field before and after the good crop

His son, Satender, crafts a daul to tame the water flow. Satender says, "There isn't a better place on earth than this field. The land is fertile, water sweet and sugarcane even sweeter." The tractor ploughing their land comes to a halt. One part of the day's work done, the men take a quick review. In a light stroke, Satender rests his spade on the water channel edge, for a break. "We have been able to turn things around in a year owing to good power supply," he adds.

In what is first occurrence, Bijnor has tasted the power of power. The increased power supply hours have made the crushing season juicier, fields greener and farmer, happier. Sugarcane is and has been the prettiest indicator of agriculture dynamics of the district and the region.

Farmers with their crop at a weighing scale on Kiratpur road
Farmers with their crop at a weighing scale on Kiratpur road

As the sun dips, the furrows gulp water, filling the air with fragrance already sweetened by the ripening wheat in the adjacent field. The furrows are wide. Wider than what peddi, the crop cut, loaded and sent off to the sugar mill weighing scales and crushers, for this season, stands on. Mahender adds, "These furrows with two daul on the sides and the wide gap between two furrows are the real game changers. The mill development board suggested we try this for the next crop. It is about using 4.5 feet wisely. These new methods for better crop awaken our sense of using irrigation well and wisely, too."

It was reported, recently, that Yogi Adityanath-led Uttar Pradesh government has raised the price paid by mills to farmers for the new crop by Rs 10 - from Rs 305 to Rs 315 per quintal (100 kg). Power, in forms, of electricity and electoral, is as crucial to any government operating in Uttar Pradesh, as sweetness is to sugar and jaggery (gur).

Yogi Adityanath government is treading carefully. West UP has a history of agitations surrounding issues related to sugarcane and other crops growing in the region. Some of these reached the doorsteps of power, in New Delhi, others, silently shook power, dissolving, gently, some of the mightiest. The Adityanath government seems determined to change things even as the farmers want to forget, quickly, the electricity woes that gripped them before the summer of 2017.

Suresh Rana, Minister of Sugarcane Development and Sugar Industry Department, says, "This government has worked swiftly in the area of electrification. Where a farmer used to spend Rs 25 every day on irrigation, today, he spends Rs 1.10. Electrification by both central and state governments, and the good coordination between the two have resulted in a good sugarcane crop." What is the first indication of improvement in produce? Rana adds, "The first indication is that sugarcane cover has gone up by 2,54,000 hectares; 68 tonne per hectare yield average has galloped to 72 tonne per hectare. Electricity, for farmers, translates into irrigation."

According to UP Power Minister Shrikant Sharma, ministers from other departments, like irrigation, agriculture, sugarcane development, are coordinating for better planning and results across the state, and efforts are on to improve the existing situation. He says, "In Bijnor, at district headquarters, we have a roaster for 24 hours. At tehsils, 20 hours and in gramin kshetra, 18 hours. We have divided the district into three parts. The distribution system had been poor so far. Wires are obsolete, cables old, they give up, there are shut downs for repair and that cause cuts in the 18 hours that figure on the feeder. If you look at the average, it is 18. On the whole, it comes to 16 for gramin kshetra, at district headquarters, it comes to 23 or 23 and a half hours, and in tehsil, 18 to 19 hours. There is a variation. We are working towards more improvement."

A field irrigated and ready for corn and sugarcane plantation on Hapur road
A field irrigated and ready for corn and sugarcane plantation on Hapur road

In this interview given to Swarajya, earlier this month, Sharma had mentioned that the state government has set up 36 new substations (including one of 765 kilovolt (kV), seven of 400 kV, eight of 220 kV and 20 of 132 kV); around 250,000 damaged transformers have been changed, 14,365 new transformers installed and  349 new feeders with separate lines are being built for tube well connections, in Uttar Pradesh.

The celebration, at the moment, is more of a good crop than what propelled it. Satender adds, "The last one year has bestowed on us a good crop. All thanks to better electricity supply and electrification in the region under the current state government. The power supply has improved in one year, from six to eight hours a day, to around 16. It's a great relief. Imagine what it means to a farmer to water his crop, especially sugarcane, as per crop requirements and not as per the whims of power supply."

Satender's happiness raises his volume, a crane at the water channel flaps away. Mahender, busy spading, does not interrupt.

Moments later, with an air of authority, he smirks at his son. He says, "Ye ganna bol raha hai. Owing to smooth power supply during the night, which allows us to focus on interrupted irrigation for a good stretch of eight hours, he has been able to get his sleep during the nights. I assist him during the day. You should have seen him a year ago. He would be irritable, and I, groggy, compensating for productive hours lost owing to power cuts."

The Bharatiya Janata Party, which made significant electoral gains in Uttar Pradesh in 2017, has pulled the obsolete wire, of poor electricity supply, ailing transformers and the fattening ground work culture from the wheels of agricultural progress. The effect is visible in Bijnor, the state's sugar bowl in the western corner, that binds a complicated recipe of caste, religion and issues affecting farmers, together.

Sweet are the uses of accountability. According to Sharma, the UP government is working towards encouraging the use of meters. "Paramapara hee nahin thhee abhi tak meter lagaane ki gaanvon mein. Tubewell par to kalpana hee nahin kar sakte aap meter ki (you could not imagine installing a meter on tube wells). It has huge benefits for farmers who practise multiple crop farming, especially during the rainy season, when pumps can be given rest for some days, and are used on some."

On the road to Hapur, fashionably overloaded tractor-trollies carting green - the sugarcane produce, and yellow - chemicals used on fields, make some noise. The noise is music for farmers like Satender and Mahender. The father and son are in flow with the turning of a page in the annual agricultural calendar. One field seems like a canvas run over by spatula, being ploughed by a tractor, ready for the growing of makka (corn), another, swaying with ripening wheat, another, cut by the linear song of running furrows of the trench method (Satender pronounces as "tanch"), encouraged for better yield and saving water used in irrigation, a specific style of furrowing for better sugarcane crop. Mahender adds, "Ganna itna paani nahin maangta, par jab paani time par nahin lagta, seedha paidaawar par asar hota hai. (sugarcane doesn't demand much water, but irregular irrigation has a direct effect on the yield."

Agriculture in India is an art of manoeuvring through uncertainties and a complicated tangle of odds - on and off field. While some uncertainties are surrounding growth, pest attacks, market factors, the biggest and the most emotionally devastating, for any farmer in India, would be, rain. Monsoon has not been kind, especially, in the recent years - between 2014 and 2016. "We should stop being at the mercy of monsoon. It hasn't rained for three years. Electricity is the only medium to help our crops survive and it was, clearly, scanty supply for agriculture, more than a year ago. The supply has definitely improved since last year," a farmer on Mirapur road, Muzaffarnagar end, says.

Farmers in Chhota Mawana, after the crop left for sugar mill
Farmers in Chhota Mawana, after the crop left for sugar mill

In the absence or scarcity of rain, or poor rainfall, scarce electricity supply, poor electrification and faulty transformers flatten a farmer's spirits in his constant struggle to churn out a good crop. Bijnor, cradled in the sprawling lap of Ganges, has had a long tryst with such factors, yet, the farmers, besides their sweet tooth for jaggery, have weakness for growing sugarcane. "When electricity supply was scanty, we would simply find consolation in the fact that there are other regions in India where farmers do not see even a drop of water. For how long can we be beaten by our emotions? Things have started picking up. We are moving with with the flow," says a farmer from Saini village, Muzaffarnagar end.

Almost the crop of sugarcane, is embraced by the mills, and the cane, from juice to molasses, by various industries. From Mawana, Mirapur and Ramraj (leading to Meerut and Muzaffarnagar), to split ends Mandawar and Kiratpur (leading to Haridwar and Kotdwar in Uttarakhand), to Haldaur and Nehtaur (leading to Dhampur) and Chandpur and Gajraula (leading to Amroha, Hapur and Ghaziabad), this part of the sugar belt of Uttar Pradesh is also known for wheat, rice and vegetables. But, in the midst of improving power supply, eenkh stands tall and taller.

Chhoal, a useful byproduct, gets some fresh air and sun at a gur producing crusher
Chhoal, a useful byproduct, gets some fresh air and sun at a gur producing crusher

The Power Minister adds, "Monsoon ditched us last year. The dhaan was ready. Farmers would have suffered immense losses during the last phase of irrigation required for the rice crop in the absence of water. We pressed into action and it helped. We have examined the deficiencies faced in September 2017. This time, we are better prepared."

On Kiratpur Road, traditionally, the path to prosperity where produce from other areas of Bijnor converges, towards this hub of sugar mills, Nahar Singh, his nephews and his mother sickle unripe mustard into bundles. Their cattle expects a good feast for the day. It will be served with a good sprinkling of fresh jaggery in the chara. The idea of fresh mustard and jaggery has the magical powers of tempting humans, too. "Until the summer of 2017, it was tough to decide where to use the scanty supply of water. We cannot neglect the cattle and their diet. We cannot neglect the crops. The farmer was stretched beyond limits and pulled between both. Things are much better now. The mustard is doing all the talking. So is wheat. Crop tells the story."

The young men at Nahar's field clear the fields for growing corn. "Yogi ji ke raj mein ye bahut badaa change aaya hai. It has resulted in a good crop. Is se pehle to pareshaan hee rahe hain. Some farmers are feeling the pinch of electricity bills. One has to pay Rs 12, 000 per annum. If not paid on time, it comes to nearly Rs 15,000. It is, however, unthinkable, how farmers were expected to get a good market price on poorly nourished produce, previously. We hope the government helps us by bringing down electricity tariff."

Satpal, a farmer in Chhota Mawana tries to hide his feet under drying cane leaves before making a humble confession. He says, "Haalat to bahut sudhree hai ek saal mein. The good part about the improving power supply is that the field can be irrigated in a flow, during the night.  Inconsistencies can be covered and monitored during the day. But the tariff is high."

The Power Minister is quick to respond. He adds, "If a farmer is using a 5 horse power motor, the expenditure is Rs 750 per month. It is less for farmers who are installing meters on pump sets, it would cost them Rs 1.15 or 1.20 per unit. We pay Rs 6.74 for electricity and we are giving electricity to farmer who has installed meter on the pump set, for Rs 1.15 to 1.20 per unit. The remaining expenditure is paid by us. We have come with the another chhoot to farmers. If there are arrears to be paid, a farmer can pay Rs 750 (for the current month) and divide his due payment in six installments. We will adjust the arrears."

Local factors make the sugar bowl a bit bitter sweet. In the 1980s and 1990s, it had its brush with feisty farmer agitations drawn on demands regarding improvement in power supply, against hike in power tariff, against inefficiency in repairing of faulty transformers and reduction of bill in case of power shortage against 12 hours of electricity demanded. The agitation simmered in the 1980s, when farmers had little or no respite from obsolete transformers in the midst of electricity tariff hike. The faulty and out of shape transformers would betray the farmer, especially during the summer. In the thick of the power problem, in 1986, the Uttar Pradesh government raised electricity tariff.

A statue of Chaudhary Mahendra Singh Tikait on Hapur road
A statue of Chaudhary Mahendra Singh Tikait on Hapur road

It was in these times and circumstances that the Bharatiya Kisan Union, a non-political organisation, mobilised farmers under the iconic leader Mahendra Singh Tikait, left the district administration shaken with protests in the villages of Meerut and Muzaffarnagar. In the years that followed, Tikait gained confidence and trust of farmers in the region, including Bijnor and his demands, traction. "Kursi kisan ke peecche bhaag rahi hai," he would say, referring to the power of consolidation under a non-political outfit meant for farmers that was politically neutral owing to its vulnerability to communalism in a complicated demographic set up. The agitation swelled in the following years before it reached, sweat and slogans - Lucknow and New Delhi.

Sugarcane pricing, too, has influenced and provoked politics in the state. Politicians and political parties, caught in a tough grid lock of issues relating to power and sugarcane pricing, fear electoral consequences of upsetting sugarcane farmers. Much of this, every five years, or between five, gets rolled over to power and power tariff, finding a quick connection, inevitably, as if in a magnetic pull and repel. In 2009, farmers from west Uttar Pradesh had forced the government to step back on the uniform fair remunerative price order that caps sugarcane rates. The farmer fury and its tumult reached the Parliament. The power and price bitter sugar ball became bigger over the summer leading to 2011 assembly elections.

It is 2018. The Power Minister is firming his pivot foot for the tricky terrain ahead. He adds, "For needs, demand and requirements of 2018, we had started working immediately, after coming to power, in 2017. The summer of 2017 welcomed our new assignment and responsibilities. It was tough. We had little time. But, we worked tirelessly. Now, we have begun to prepare for summer of 2019. It takes approximately two years to achieve good transmission. Substations have to be readied. Power imported, earlier, was 6,500 mega watt. Now, we can import up to 10,000 mega watt. The grid limit was 18,500. We have exceeded it, to 22,000. Low voltage districts have been identified. Committees will take care of issues in these districts."

The Singhs, like other farmers on Hapur road, have three generations and three samples of experiments of sugarcane growing to flaunt. The previous two have been at the mercy of erratic power supply, indicating how crop and its quality have suffered owing to lack of sufficient irrigation - a direct consequence of power problems that have gripped the state during the previous decades. Sidhu, a farmer on Ganj Road, puts it simply. He says, "One can note, pick and see the difference, in 2018, per hectare."

Satender points at the crammed rows of peddi soaring in the adjacent field and compares the planting methods and styles, from old to the recent. He has picked Naulakha for trench method. "The field belonging to my grandfather employs the oldest method of cane growing, relevant to his generation, their times and means. The field behind you has been prepared by my father on my suggestion, we are playing with the three and a half feet style of plantation. The one being watered is styled to give cane maximum breathing space. It will be the healthiest. Latth jaisa niklega (it will be as sturdy as a bamboo stick)."

Sukhbir Singh stands alone on his "baaraa (12) beegha" in Chhota Mawana area. He spreads the drying leaves of the cane that have been left behind after the crop farewell to crushers, with help of a rake. The layee crop sways to the breeze. Sukhbir pauses to rest his chin on the rake. He says, "Using diesel for irrigation was too heavy on our pockets. From Saini village to Chhota Mawana, you may hear farmers give you different estimate of diesel consumption per hour, because, needs and water levels differ. We are luckier than farmers in Saini and surrounding villages."

Sukhbir puts across the diesel math in a simple manner. He reveals that it took him an hour and half of diesel consumption to irrigate one beegha. "I would spend Rs 250-300 on irrigating a beegha. It took eight hours to irrigate the entire 12 beeghas. Calculate the weight of expenditure on my shoulders. I would never have the courage to irrigate the field regularly. I would skip and give consecutive irrigation bigger gaps. Sometimes four days. Sometimes five. Cutting corners would show a negative impact on the crop."

That's roughly what a branded mug of coffee at a multinational cafe costs when served with a complimentary, bone dry cookie.

Fresh shoots of cane tear the soil around Sukhbir's feet. He adds, "Peddi is faithful to the farmer. It soaks our sorrows and limitations well. And still gives a fair produce. I don't have high hopes from rains this year, but I hope the government has planned for a bad rainy season, especially to help farmers who grow multiple crops and support them with good power supply and fair tariff."

"0238 aur makki". Tassavvur, a farmer I meet on Hapur road, uses few words to reveal his plans or the field. 0238 is a variety of sugarcane that has been received well at the district sugar mills over the years. "I am a caretaker on these fields and I notice too many power cuts during the usual supply hours. It is annoying. I don't know what the fuss around increased power supply is about. The transformers are being repaired often." It is around 4 pm. The land surrounding this farm is soaked and happy, water in it still glitters under the blazing sun, making it look like a combed field of silver. Two helpers from the adjacent field return to the dera where Tassavvur is standing. "Lag gaya paani?" he asks. "Haan ji, lag gaya," they answer. Tassavvur concludes it in brevity. "Unnees bees ka farq hoga, hoga to (not much difference)," he says, sheepishly.

Lack of trust in the linemen persists. The Power Minister goes with what the farmers tell us. He adds, "Unka kehna theek hai. Workers who have a direct connect with people need some changes in their work culture. Purani parampara thhee. Bina paise ke yeh loag kaam nahin karte thhe. We are taking stock of irregularities and things that need improvement. We have to work towards it."

In the 1980s and 1990s, power was elusive. Long power cuts became and shaped lifestyle in town area. The total hours of power cuts rightfully exceeded the fixed hours meant for power supply, which, roughly, would circuit between eight and nine hours.

In rural areas, it converted to loss and sense of humour, part of mundane expression in a farmer's daily life. "Transformer phuk gaya",  the evening tea time greeting, referring to transformer going down to summer woes, "ganna sookh raha hai",  a signature welcome to the wheat harvest onset, "parchee nahin kat rahi," - considered a bad omen - referring to commotion at the sugar mill over prices per quintal woes following or preceding a bad season, "batti de do" a farmer's desperate and witty cry to the sky for electricity or rains for "moonjee", the rice crop. Then, there were other small issues giving farmers sleepless nights. Funny as it may sound, the absence of power supply also deterred farmers on night vigils from guarding fields from neel gai herd attacks and serious crop damage, in some parts of Bijnor, effectively. The only way to drive the neel gai away, with the noble intention of not harming the animal, was to use powerful lamps, or play loud music, as a sign of warning or of human presence. Power cuts favoured the neel gai and their night frolic and not the farmer and his crops.

Farmers who are familiar with those times and gearing for challenges unforeseen, today, have a word of caution. "The situation has reversed. There is no question or doubt regarding improvement in electricity supply and efforts being taken by the government to keep horse powers galloping. However, the government must keep a watch on line men. They continue to live in the past and have little patience or liking for good change," says a farmer from the Muzaffarnagar end.

The small gur producing units still depend on diesel for the crushing of cane for juice. On Hapur Road, a helper at one of the crushing mills rejects the idea of shifting to electricity even for crushing. "Very few gur unit owners are using electricity for crushing. Here, we would spend around rupees 200 to 250 per hour on diesel. It is expensive, but suits our needs and minimises our dependence on electricity," he says. A helper at a gur producing unit in Chhota Mawana notes that crushers and units dedicated to jaggery, have not created the space and phase for electricity usage, owing to limited needs and scale of production. He says, "Frankly, we would be more than happy to see the farmer squeeze the maximum benefit from the improving scenario. Crushers run on diesel celebrate the yield pumped up by electricity."

Gur being produced at a small unit on Hapur road
Gur being produced at a small unit on Hapur road

Sukhbir points out that some farmers in villages leading to Bijnore from Muzaffarnagar end are slowly discarding hesitation regarding the use of modern irrigation options being suggested by the government. A total shift seems distant, but the willingness for undertaking small adventures is a direct result of better power supply and effective electrification, and a humble sign of confidence. These thoughts find an echo on fields on Dhampur Road, however, the response to new and untried irrigation methods and equipment waits for advice and guidance. "People still rely on applying for tube well connections. Familiarity helps. I have applied for a new connection and the entire cost of a tube well, including outer construction costs around Rs 1 lakh. Any farmer would think a little longer before responding to modern and untried options. They believe in going with the flow of electricity supply and electrification and using them most effectively until they are available."

Satender concludes it on an emotional note. He says, "I tried for bhartee in state police. I did not make it. So, I returned to my lands. A jat doesn't have a third option. He serves the nation or his field. A farmer doesn't have the third, either. He serves the nation or his field. I understand the pain of farmers in regions not blessed with irrigation and electricity. I, sometimes, think of them when I am irrigating my field. Bijnor is blessed."

Emotion can nourish and sap kisan, agriculture and produce. A glimpse of how electrification can channelise a farmer's emotion into greater energies and efforts with some help from nature, is Bijnor, the sugar bowl.

(Pictures: Sumati Mehrishi/Swarajya)

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