With official cane payment arrears of mills in Uttar Pradesh (UP) crossing ₹8,000 crore – the actual figure may be a couple of thousand crores more – farmers here are in no mood to take up plantings for the next crushing season.

A cross-section of growers whom Business Line spoke to in Baghpat, Meerut, Muzaffarnagar, Shamli, Saharanpur and Bijnor – all in the western UP cane heartland – indicated they would plant 10-15 per cent less area relative to last year.

Cane plantings in UP happen during March-May, with harvesting taking place after about 11 months the following February-April. The same plant-cane also yields a ‘ratoon’, automatically sprouting from its root stubbles and ready for crushing after 9-10 months.

Lower plantings this time would, in other words, impact sugar output not only for 2014-15 (October-September) but also the season after that.

The basmati option “Last year, I planted cane in my entire 40 bighas (one acre is 4.75 bighas). This year, I am only doing 32 bighas, ” said Jitender Singh Hooda.

In the remaining eight bighas , this farmer from Kheri Bairagi village in Shamli tehsil has already undertaken nursery bed sowing of Pusa-1509, a new high-yielding short-duration basmati variety maturing within 90 days of transplanting.

“I can harvest this by mid-July and then go for a regular Pusa Basmati-1 crop for transplanting towards the month-end. I hope the experiment will succeed,” noted Hooda.

He isn’t the only one. “There is 25 per cent less cane planting in our area. Many of us are growing Saathi (a 60-day coarse rice) and Pusa-1121 basmati after that,” informed Vilayat Khan, who farms 30 bighas at Butrada village in the same tehsil.

Fodder and poplar Chhatrapal Singh, a 95- bigha farmer of Bahsuma in Meerut’s Mawana tehsil, reckoned cane acreage to be 20 per cent less this year.

“I have set aside 20 bighas to grow jowar (sorghum), makka (maize) and bajra (pearl-millet) only for fodder. I will follow this with Pusa Basmati,” he stated.

In Muzaffarnagar and Saharanpur, many farmers are also taking to planting of poplar trees that mature in five years and have a ready market in the plywood industry around this belt.

“This year, I have planted poplar in two out of my 10 bighas . If the situation in cane does not improve, I may go for another two bighas next year,” said Dharmender Kumar from Nagla Pithora in Muzaffarnagar.

Payment woes All this diversion is due to sugar mills owing huge cane payment arrears to farmers. UP factories have till now bought over ₹16,500 crore worth of cane, based on the State Advised Price (SAP) of ₹280 a quintal for the 2013-14 season.

As against this, they have made actual payments of about ₹5,500 crore, leaving outstandings of almost ₹11,000 crore, not counting the ₹213-crore dues of the previous season.

The cane arrears are lower if only the cane value based on the first instalment of ₹260/quintal is taken. The UP Government has allowed mills to pay this rate within 14 days of taking cane delivery and settle the balance ₹20 before the end of crushing operations by early-May.

“I got my last payment on May 5, 2013,” complained Satvir Singh Panwar, who jointly cultivates 200 bighas with his three brothers at Shabga in Baghpat’s Baraot tehsil and supplies to the UK Modi Group-owned Malakpur mill.

Panwar, however, admitted that replacing cane isn’t easy. “Cane fits into our crop cycle very well, as the tops yield fodder for our buffaloes between the time wheat is sown in December and harvested in April,” he explained.

Besides, western UP has a serious problem of nilgai (Asian antelope) and wild boar attacks, making raising other crops, especially pulses and vegetables, difficult.

“They will destroy these crops in minutes. Sugarcane is hardy, while being ola (hail), pala (frost), aag (fire), paani (water) and nilgai -proof. I don’t see cane area falling beyond 10 per cent even this time,” Panwar added.