After failing to sell their produce to sugar mills, farmers make gur (jaggery) in the central Pakistani city of Multan. (Photo by Shahid Hussain)
Shaukat Khan's plan to marry his daughter off at the end of this year's sugar cane-crushing season now seems like a distant dream as he is still struggling to sell his produce at the official rate — making the required dowry unattainable.
"I cultivated 20 acres of sugarcane this season in the hope that, by the end of year, I'd be able to generate enough money for the dowry,"Khan told ucanews.com.
"But those plans have been shelved now," he sighed.
"While the crushing season is about to end, sugar mill owners have refused to buy our produce at Rs180 per kilogram [US$1.63], a rate set by the government," he said.
In a desperate bid to sell his crop, Khan approached some middlemen who offered rates as low as Rs50 for 40 kilograms.
"That wouldn't even recover my expenses, which means I'd have to pay the yearly land rental from my own pocket by selling cattle," he said.
The 47-year-old ranks among thousands of Pakistani growers who have been left in the lurch by the state's failure to buy their cane at the government-approved rate, even as they battle other threats to their livelihood including climate change and floods.
All options, including protests, arrests and legal battles have failed to yield significant results for the producers and their representative bodies.
While many have been forced to sell their produce at a nominal price, some chose instead to burn their crops.
TV footage over the last two months has shown farmers burning crops in protest in several parts of the country.
Small farmers are exploited every year due to government neglect, according to Caritas Pakistan. (Photo by Shahid Hussain)
Some officials who represent farmers' rights contend the situation was stoked by forces with an ulterior motive.
The current crisis was created by sugar mill owners in collusion with the government, claims Mian Muhammad Umair Masood, secretary-general of Pakistan Kissan Ittehad, a proxy that defends the rights of small farmers.
"The crushing season begins in the first week of November every year but this time it was delayed until Dec. 10," Masood said.
"Out of 27 sugarcane factories that are operational in Punjab, for example, seven are owned by the ruling Sharif family. The rest are also run by politicians, or by figures with strong political backing. A similar situation can be seen in other provinces," he added.
He said the mill owners delayed the season by a month as part of a deliberate strategy to inflate demand and panic farmers into offloading their crops at a discounted rate.
"Many factory owners either refused to buy the cane or asked farmers to accept whatever rate they were offered," he said.
"These crops have become a huge burden, especially for small farmers. First of all the mills refuse to buy their produce citing a variety of issues. And if they somehow agree to buy the cane, payment is put on hold."
Under the Sugarcane Factories Control Act sugar mills are legally bound to release payment within 15 days of purchasing. But the law is openly flouted without fear of there being any adverse consequences.
"We've received hundreds of complaints from farmers that the mills aren't making the payment at the stipulated time," Masood said.
"The thing is our meetings with district and provincial administrations usually end in crackdowns on the middlemen, leading to further exploitation."
Masood said labor and transportation can cost a small grower up to Rs 60 per kg. Due to the delayed crushing, many are forced to wait outside the factory for weeks, which can end up canceling out all of the farmer's profit.
Farmers groups claim that mill owners deliberately delay the crushing season to manipulate the market and often refuse to pay on time, compelling farmers to sell at discounted prices. (Photo by Shahid Hussain)
"Pakistan Kissan Ittehad has held a series of meetings with authorities to resolve the crisis, but we've not been able to find a solution so far," he said.
"Many disgruntled farmers have burned their crops in Vehari, Liaquatpur, Rahimyar Khan and other cities of the province," he added.
He said mill owners are demanding a government subsidy to export sugar despite the generous profits that related products pull in.
"Leftovers from all the crushed cane sells for a decent price as it is used to generate electricity. Some of the other byproducts are used in alcohol," Masood said.
After failing to sell his produce to factories, Malik Gullu has chosen to make unrefined sugar from his crop, flouting a government ban.
Jaggery is a traditional form of unrefined cane sugar consumed in South Asia, Africa and some countries in the Americas.
"I searched for a middleman to buy my sugarcane at a lower price but demand was so high I couldn't find anyone who was willing to trade," Gullu told ucanews.com.
"Now I've set up a small factory on my land to make gur (jaggery) from the produce I grow there so I can at least recover some of my expenses," he said, adding the market rate for jaggery has also started to ease off.
The 66-year-old described jaggery as being more time-consuming but the only feasible option to get rid of the cane and sow new crops.
Masood warned this kind of mentality and practice could lead to more people being arrested.
"It's unfortunate that due to the lobbying of mill owners, making jaggery from the cane has been banned," he said.
"This has also resulted in the further exploitation of small farmers," he added.
"In neighboring India there is no such ban."
While many small farmers fear for their future, some have resorted to self-immolation in protest. (Photo by Shahid Hussain)
In southern Sindh province, a peasant set himself on fire in December when farmers protested mill owners' refusal to buy cane at the official rate, according to Dawn, a popular English-language daily in Pakistan.
The man, named as Majeed Qambrani, suffered burns to 30-40 percent of his body.
"After working hard all year the sugarcane farmers have been neglected by the government, which has failed to perform its duty of protecting growers' rights," Father Iqbal, a Catholic priest in Punjab province's Multan city, told ucanews.com.
"We lend our full support to those farmers who must bear massive economic losses this season," he said.
"The worst affected are those small farmers who borrowed heavily from pesticide traders with the hope that a good harvest would pay off all their debt."
The Catholic Church has been trying to improve the food security status of poor farmers through a program run by Caritas Pakistan, a humanitarian development organization that has run numerous programs to help growers.
The project involves practical education for farmers, livestock vaccinations, training on the use of fuel-efficient stoves, seed banks, and sessions on organic farming.
One concern is that the exploitation of small farmers is not a random occurrence but a de facto annual rite, according to Samuel Clement, executive secretary of Caritas Pakistan's local chapter in Multan.
"This is unjust for the poor farmers. Most of the sugar mills are owned by sitting lawmakers, who share the same kind of feudal attitude," he said.
"Sugarcane takes longer to produce then other crops. The government should make a concerted effort to get court orders issued that serve the farmers' cause."