In Maharashtra, the cradle of India’s co-operative sugar movement, a dramatic shift is underway in the operational landscape of sugar mills this election season. Traditionally, the domain of co-operative mills has been dominant, embodying a spirit of collaboration and community-led sugar production. However, private mills have surged ahead, outpacing their co-operative counterparts in operations. Out of the 207 operational sugar mills this season, 104 are privately owned. Surprisingly, this has not emerged as an election issue even in the sugar belt of Pune, Kolhapur, and Satara.

In the last few years, one after one co-operative sugar mills are getting auctioned in Maharashtra, and farmers and farmer leaders have repeatedly alleged a “conspiracy” to convert co-operative mills into a private venture to grab assets of mills along with sprawling land parcels worth multi-crore rupees. Loss-making sugar mills are being auctioned by the Maharashtra State Co-operative Bank (MSCB) to recover loans. However, the auctioning process has come under the scanner.

Sugar Barons Benefitted

“The same politicians who drove these cooperative mills into sickness and debt have purchased them in the auction. The same leaders are in the decision-making process of the MSCB. Surprisingly, once privatised, these mills start making profits,” revealed a managing director of a Kolhapur-based cooperative mill, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The Nabard report and the Bombay High Court in its verdict in 2019 have confirmed this modus operandi of sugar barons, mostly from the Nationalist Congress Party and Congress.

 Shifting Loyalties

Ahead of the LS elections, the majority of sugar barons facing ED and probe in mill auctioning joined the BJP or aligned with the party. Some of these leaders, including Deputy Chief Minister Ajit Pawar, have already got relief from the probing agency.

BJP, when in opposition, thundered against the auction process, decrying the sale of operational mills at throwaway prices to political leaders. When the new Union Ministry of Co-operation was formed under Amit Shah, the State BJP leaders had requested him for an ED probe into the sale of over 30 co-operative sugar mills.

However, today, a strange silence blankets the sugar belt, as the very voices that once railed against the auctioning process now remain eerily hushed. Those who have benefited from this transformation and now are with the BJP bear the weight of the party’s success in the sugar belt, shielded from scrutiny amidst the shifting political landscape.

Activist Samatrao Pawar asserts that politicians have brought an end to the cooperative era in the sugar belt, with little concern from anyone. He emphasised that cooperative mills granted farmers ownership and the ability to question the elected body. In contrast, farmers have no voice in private mills.

Inflow in BJP Continues

Meanwhile, Abhijit Patil, chairman of the Vitthal Cooperative Sugar Mill and a prominent NCP leader from Pandharpur, recently met with Deputy Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis as MSCB seized a substantial sugar stock of 1 lakh gunny bags of the mill due to a defaulted loan amounting to ₹430 crore. Patil has declared his willingness to take “any necessary” steps to save the mill. He further mentioned that Fadnavis has assured cooperation, contingent upon Patil’s support for BJP candidates in the election. Consequently, Patil has ceased campaigning for the NCP (Sharad Pawar) candidate in Madha and the Congress candidate in Solapur.