There is not even a hint of sweetness associated with the Warisaliganj Sugar Mill today, as it stands in a 78-acre campus in Nawada district, Bihar, about 105 kms south of Patna, the state capital. The sugar mill that was established in 1952 by the then chief minister Srikrishna Singh, once employed as many as 1,200 people at a given time from nearby villages and towns. It fell silent in 1993 when it was declared to be a loss making unit, and it has been mouldering ever since.
Many farmers and erstwhile employees of the mill still hope for a miracle that might reopen the mill. Hundreds of them are awaiting settlement of their salaries and other financial dues running into several crore of rupees.
“The mill management owes money to the tune of twenty six crore rupees to the employees and labourers while it owes farmers eleven crores and nine lakh rupees to the farmers for the sugarcane,” Shraddhanand Singh, who was general secretary of the labour union of the sugar mill, told Gaon Connection.
According to the local inhabitants hundreds of people were employed at the sugar mill, and an equal number of farmers from villages nearby supplied sugarcane to it. Most of the employees are still waiting for their salaries and other benefits due to them to be settled, and the farmers are waiting for their outstanding payments. They have approached the High Court and the Supreme Court, in vain.
Also Read: Bihar rice mill scam: A decade later, 2000 rice mills still shut in the state; paddy procurement 25% of the total production
“The mill has been shut down since the time of chief minister Laloo Prasad Yadav. Many times, there have been discussions and debates on reopening the mill, and many of us still live in that hope,” Suresh Mahto, chowkidar (gatekeeper) at the mill, told Gaon Connection. “There were many agitations, many promises made, it figured in election speeches, but nothing came of those,” he said. Mahato, like many other mill workers, is still waiting for his arrears from the factory.
“My father was a turner at the mill and he had an outstanding amount of three and a half lakh due to him,” Adil, son of Mohammad Shamir, told Gaon Connection.
According to Adil, till his father was employed at the mill, life for the family was comfortable, but once it shut down, they faced a lot of financial strain. “In 1995 my father set up a footpath shop selling readymade clothes, in the main square of Warisaliganj. But the lockdown put a stop to that,” said Adil, whose father died in May 2021 when the country was facing the devastating second wave of the COVID19 pandemic.
Accolades, downfall and empty promises
About seventy years ago, many people in the area had donated their lands to set up the Warisaliganj Sugar Mill in 1952 that was taken over by a private company and renamed as Mohini Sugar Works. In 1976, because of a record production of sugar, the central government had awarded it a gold medal. In 1977, the Bihar State Sugar Corporation took over the mill, and ran it for 16 years, till it was shut down in 1993.
Also Read: Rice racket: From the paddy fields of Bihar to the mandis of Punjab
“Till the mill was being run by Mohini Sugar Works, all concerned received their full payments on time. All that changed when the state government took it over. Payments began to be delayed,” Shraddhanand said. But according to him the mill issued coupons to the employees who could use them as currency in the local markets to buy their requirements.
Talk of reviving the old sugar mill has cropped up every now and then in the past 28 years, more so during elections, be they of Vidhan Sabha or the Lok Sabha. Chief ministerial and even prime ministerial candidates have promised to reopen the mill, but these promises were never realised, say the local inhabitants whose livelihoods once came from the mill.
Even Prime Minister Narendra Modi, addressing an election rally in Nawada district’s ITI ground, in April 2014, had asked why the Warisaliganj Sugar Mill remained shrouded in silence. That had led to a glimmer of hope in the people that if Modi became the prime minister, the locked gates of the mill would be thrown open to them once again. But, that did not happen.
On July 4, 2019, Chandan Singh, the member of parliament from the district, had raised the matter of reopening the shut down sugar mills, in the monsoon session of parliament. However, Union minister Nitin Gadkari had shot down the idea saying the sugar mills were loss-making units and instead suggested they should be used to manufacture ethanol, which was also made from sugarcane.
Farmers in grief
For a while after the closure of the Warisaliganj Sugar Mill, farmers continued to grow sugarcane in the hope things would come back to normal. But over the years, many of them stopped cultivating the crop.
“Just a handful of farmers in the village grow sugarcane. Most of the others have switched to paddy and wheat,” Ravindra Singh, a 62-year-old inhabitant of Mafi village in Nawada, told Gaon Connection.
But even there the paddy and wheat farmers are at a loss as they do not get the right price for their produce.
Ever since Bihar did away with the mandi system where the government lifted the crop produce directly from the farmers on the Minimum Support Price (MSP) in 2006, the state’s farmers have been forced to sell their produce at rates below the MSP. Even last year while the government-approved MSP of paddy was Rs 1,950 a quintal, farmers in the state got no more than up to Rs 1,200 a quintal.
Also Read: Farmers in Bihar pay up to Rs 100 more per sack of urea than fixed by the government. Why? Gaon Connection investigates
“It was a dream and we were rudely awakened,” Radheshyam of Mafi village told Gaon Connection. The 77-year-old farmer continued, “Sugarcane took care of us and our cattle. Whether it was a wedding or a funeral, we could handle all expenses. We never had to borrow money.” Radheshyam’s father, Madan Yadav, worked at the mill. “But now our children have left the village in search of jobs elsewhere,” he lamented.
Of hope and despair
Hope raised its head once again when the migrant labourers from Bihar returned home during the pandemic and lockdown, Chief Minister Nitish Kumar had assured them jobs at home. This led to a frisson of excitement that the Warisaliganj Sugar Mills would reopen now. But once the Vidhan Sabha elections were complete, many promises went into cold storage again, complained the villagers.
Between 1960 and 1970, approximately 40 per cent of sugar production happened in 33 sugar mills of Bihar. Today 18 of those 33 sugar mills are locked up.
Sugar mills in Gaya, Samastipur, Muzaffarpur, Gopalganj, Siwan, Darbhanga, Vaishali and other districts, shut down one by one. From being the leading contributor of sugar in the country, Bihar now produces a paltry two per cent.
Also Read: Muddy waters: Villagers fear the Ganga Water Lift Scheme in Mokama, Bihar may adversely impact farming
In the monsoon session of parliament, last year, in response to a question, the state minister for Consumer Affairs, Food and Public Distribution said that of the 756 sugar mills in the country, 250 were shut and of those 18 were in Bihar alone.
According to the state government, the Bihar State Sugar Corporation is taking steps to float tenders and is looking to give the mills on a long term lease to public and private concerns. A mill each in Lauriya and Sugauli in West Champaran and East Champaran respectively have been restarted by HPCL Biofuels. The bidding process for five other mills is also complete in Bihta, Motipur, Raiyam, Samastipur and Sakri. Motipur and Raiyam will start production of sugar again while some other enterprises will start in the other mills.
However, there is no mention of Warisaliganj Sugar Mill, which continues to be covered in silence and cobwebs. The people of Nawada will have to wait once again.
Read the story in Hindi