In Mundet Kalan, as dusk sets in, villagers get together for some chatter, passing around a large wooden hookah. The village, located in Shamli district of western Uttar Pradesh, is dominated by land-owning Jats – who are angry at almost everything around them.

“Jaton ke saath bahot julum howe hai,” said Virendar Singh, setting off a gurgle from the hookah. Jats face a lot of oppression.

This region votes on February 11, in the first phase of the seven-phase Assembly elections in the state.

In Mundet Kalan, Jats are angry with the Samajwadi Party for allegedly favouring Muslims in the 2013 Jat-Muslim riots. They are also incensed with the Bharatiya Janata Party for what they see as its heavy-handed treatment of Jats in Haryana during the reservations riots last year. And they are also angry with both the Samajwadi Party and the BJP for doing nothing for their main source of income: sugarcane.

“If things go on like this, we will have to stop growing sugarcane,” said Virendar Singh, sighing.

For a region that is crucially dependent on sugarcane, this is an alarming proposition. And while the threat might be an improbable one in the short term, the crisis of sugarcane in western Uttar Pradesh might go a long way in explaining the social and political crises that the region has experienced recently.

Sugar country

Sugarcane dominates the landscape of western Uttar Pradesh. Called the Upper Doab since it falls between the Ganga and the Yamuna rivers (the doab is a term used in India and Pakistan for the tract of land lying between two converging or confluent rivers), the region is highly fertile and supports the once lucrative sugarcane crop.

Uttar Pradesh is India’s largest producer of sugarcane, growing more than a third of the country’s entire output. In 2015-’16, sugarcane purchased by the mills of Uttar Pradesh amounted to Rs 18,000 crores in value.

This economic clout has transmuted into political power as well. The Upper Doab has produced influential leaders who have been powered by support of the region’s rich sugarcane farmers. In 1988, for example, a powerful Jat leader, Mahendra Singh Tikait, squatted on the lawns of New Delhi’s elite Boat Club on Rajpath, in the heart of Delhi, along with tens of thousands of his followers. In the end, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi was forced to give into their demands and raised the procurement price of sugarcane among other things.

Earlier, Tikait’s mentor, Charan Singh, also a Jat from this region, had become both chief minister as well as prime minister on the back of his sugarcane farmer supporter base. This political clout means that even in 2017, sugar is the least taxed industry in India.

Falling fortunes

However, the days of Charan Singh and Tikait are behind us, and far from throwing up a national level leader, the region’s clout even within Uttar Pradesh has dropped sharply. Much of this is driven by a crisis in sugarcane farming where yields have stagnated, costs have increased and selling prices have only gone up marginally.

The price at which Uttar Pradesh’s sugar mills buy sugarcane has remained stagnant for three years since 2013, at Rs 280 per quintal for the ordinary variety of cane. It was only in November, months before the Assembly elections, that the Uttar Pradesh government hiked the price by Rs 25.

However, this increase might be a case of too little too late.

A farmer brings his sugarcane harvest to Titawi sugar mill in Muzaffarnagar district of western Uttar Pradesh. (Photo credit: Shoaib Daniyal).

In Kairana town, Mayank Chauhan and his family have been cultivating sugarcane for generations now. Chauhan is clear that the new price is far from adequate.

“This does not even cover our costs, so what is the use of hiking it by so little,” asked Chauhan. “And that too just before the election. Does the government think the farmer is a fool?”

Chauhan continued: “Labour has itself become so expensive because of NREGA [National Rural Employment Guarantee Act]. It costs Rs 400 to hire a farmhand for a day. How will a price of Rs 305 cover costs?”

As per the Uttar Pradesh Council of Sugarcane Research, it takes the farmer Rs 354 to produce a quintal of sugarcane. Before the hike, a demand for raising the procurement price of sugarcane to anything between Rs 350 to Rs 500 per quintal went around in farmers’ circles.

To add to this, sugar mills in the region are notorious for delays in payments.

At the government-owned Titawi Sugar Mill in Muzaffarnagar, farmers coming in to deposit sugarcane complain that payments for the harvest season of 2015-’16 have only come in now.

“How can anyone run their household if money comes so late, you tell me,” asked Amit Singh, a farmer who had come to sell his sugarcane at Titawi. “I can’t pay for my children’s school fees even though I gave the mill my full produce. Is this fair?”

Pankaj Singh, a shopkeeper in Kairana town, Shamli district says that delays in mill payment affect his sales. This is an expected phenomenon given how sugarcane drives the local economy. The effect of a recessionary sugarcane industry on the economy of Kairana has meant many that wealthy residents have emigrated, which the BJP tried to project as a Hindu “exodus” last year. (Photo credit: Shoaib Daniyal).

Not-so-sweet politics

The decline in the fortunes of the sugarcane farmer is one of the underlying causes of the 2013 Jat-Muslims riots in Muzaffarnagar and Shamli.

In the earlier system, landless Muslims were bound to the land-owning Jats within the village. Muslims would typically be carpenters, ironsmiths and general farm labour serving the Jat farmers. With a declining sugarcane crop, Muslims found employment outside of this system, weakening the rigid relationship between the landowning Jat and the Muslim craftsman.

While the riots this sparked off drove the Jats into the arms of the Bharatiya Janata Party in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, ironically, it is sugarcane which is leading some Jats to reject the BJP this time.

In Mundet Kalan, the mood agains the BJP is rather sour.

“In 2014, Modi told us acche din would be here, but where are these good days for the farmer?” asked Nauraj Singh. “BJP is only good for the poonjipatis [capitalists] not for us farmers.”

Nauraj Singh, a Jat sugarcane farmer, is disenchanted with what he feels is the inability of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to live up to his promise of development. (Photo credit: Shoaib Daniyal).

Disenchanted, many Jats are now going back to the Rashtriya Lok Dal, headed by Ajit Singh, son of Charan Singh, in the upcoming Assembly election.

The romance with the BJP, while not over completely, has certainly reduced greatly in ardour.

But even with Jat support, the Rashtriya Lok Dal might hardly be in a position to push the sugarcane farmer cause with any strength. In the 2012 Assembly election, the party fought in 40 seats and won a paltry nine. That difference in political clout between Ajit Singh and his father perhaps best encapsulates the fall in strength of this region’s Jat sugarcane farmers.

The sugarcane crisis and its impact on politics, while it affects only a small proportion of Indians, is a lesson for agriculture in the country as a whole. That even a crop as profitable as sugarcane in the fertile Upper Doab could reach a crisis situation is a portent to the tough times India’s farm sector could see in the future.

In Mundet Kalan, there is resignation over farming, the source of the social identity of the Jat.

“The country depends on us for food but we cannot depend on farming for our own livelihood,” said Uday Pal wearily. “Only houses that have somebody with a job or in the Army can make ends meet here.”