Maharashtra farmers join hands, slam Sharad Pawar

Sharad Pawar
Maharashtra's farmers demanding a higher price for their sugarcane crop lashed out at union agriculture minister Sharad Pawar Wednesday for what they said were his casteist remarks as factions of the powerful Shetkari Sanghatna decided to join hands and step up their campaign to pressure the state government.

The decision by the three factions of the farmers' group to forge unity came as fresh violence erupted in pockets of western Maharashtra, two days after two farmers were killed in violence when the protests began on Monday. The farmers are demanding at least Rs 3,000 per tonne as a first installment payment while sugar factories in the region have decided to pay them Rs 2,300 per tonne.

The farmers said Pawar had further fanned the protests by his comments against Raju Shetty, independent MP from Hatkanangale and leader of the Swabhimani Shetkari Sanghatna.

Speaking at the inauguration of a village secretariat in Sangvi village in Baramati taluka on Monday, Pawar had reportedly said that Shetty was determined to shut down sugar factories in Pune district while ensuring sugar factories belonging to his community work at full capacity in his constituency that spans the two districts of Kolhapur and Sangli.

"Who is this Raju Shetty? Where has he come from?

We need to find out...He is ensuring that sugar factories belonging to his community remain functional and at the same time he is trying to close down sugar factories of other communities. Closing down shops of others while keeping his own shops open...this is his way of protest," Pawar reportedly said.

Referring to the Warna sugar factory, Pawar reportedly said "this sugar unit was running at full capacity and it is in Shetty's constituency. If you find out which community Shetty and the sugar factory belong to you will understand the truth."

Shetty, who was arrested for leading the protests and has refused to seek bail, said Pawar's remarks reflected his regressive mindset.

"He calls himself a progressive leader. But by raising the bogey of communities, Pawar has shown that he is casteist to the core. His remarks have hurt the farmers," Shetty told reporters in Pune after refusing to seek bail and was sent to Yerawada jail under judicial custody.

Anti-graft crusader Anna Hazare also criticised Pawar. "Pawar's remarks were unfortunate. They have only fuelled the anger among farmers who have intensified their agitation for higher sugarcane price. Pawar is not a farmer. He is an industrialist," Hazare said in a statement.

"Pawar's remarks are aimed at dividing the farmers on caste lines. The farmers are united and nobody will succeed in dividing them. The remarks from an experienced politician such as Pawar are highly condemnable," said Raghunath Patil, president of another faction of the Shetkari Sanghatna.

Maharashtra has three factions of the sanghatna, one led by veteran farmers' leader Sharad Joshi who pioneered the movement in the state, another headed by Raghunath Patil and a third with Shetty as its president.

While the three factions have decided to join hands, the state government has maintained that sugarcane price will be decided by sugar factories, most of which are co-operatives run by elected farmers' representatives, in consultation with the farmers. The rivalry among the three factions had helped the state government ignore their demands, farmers' leaders said.

"For solving the issues faced by the sugarcane farmers all three unions will fight together. We are unanimously demanding a first installment of Rs 3,000 per tonne," said Patil who met Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan on Tuesday. While Patil declared that his men will hit the streets to block the transport of sugarcane and sugar manufactured in the mills, Joshi has announced that strong protests will be organised in each district.

On Wednesday, protesting farmers torched a police jeep in at Dindnerli village in Kolhapur and also clashed with police. While stones were pelted on the convoy of water supply minster Laxman Dhoble near Ozewadi, protestors blocked traffic on the Mumbai-Bangalore highway at several places in Sangli and Kolhapur.

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