Sangli/Kolhapur: Protests by the sugarcane farmers in Maharashtra, who are demanding better price for their produce, intensified on Wednesday with farmers damaging police vehicles and state transport buses in Kolhapur. Additional companies of the State Reserve Police Force have been sent to Sangli, Kolhapur and Satara districts. When policemen tried to lathicharge the mob, stones were pelted at them. In Sangli, police were forced to resort to firing in the area to disperse protesters. Key state highways were also blocked, suspending transport services and paralysing traffic. Farmers want the government to raise the minimum support price of sugarcane to Rs 3000 per tonne.
A youth, identified as Praveen Patil, was reportedly injured at Ashta village when farmers tried to set ablaze a gas tanker. Though police denied that Patil was injured in firing, sources at the local hospital said the youth received a bullet injury in his leg. "Farmers first damaged a milk tanker coming from Pune. They were joined by another group and intercepted a gas tanker and beat up the driver. They were trying to set on fire the tanker when police lathicharged them. As they refused to budge, we opened fire in air to disperse them," Inspector Nalawade of Ashta police station said.
Incidents of stone pelting were reported from the town and Dindanerli village in neighbouring Kolhapur district as well. In Ashta, farmers gheraoed a police station and pelted stones demanding release of four of their comrades allegedly arrested on Wednesday in connection with the protests. However, police denied the reports of arrests and said the situation is under control.
In Kolhapur, peasants and followers of Swabhimani Shetkari Sangathana torched a police jeep when they tried to remove the road blockades put up by farmers on Kolhapur-Gargoti Road in the morning. Farmers have been protesting for the last few days against refusal of cooperative sugar factories in Sangli, Satara and Kolhapur districts of western Maharashtra to give Rs 3,000 per ton as first advance on sugarcane purchase this season. Factories have agreed to pay Rs 2,300 per ton.
The agitation has been spearheaded by Swabhimani Shetkari Sanghatna leader Raju Shetty, who has been arrested. Meanwhile, social activist Anna Hazare criticised the state government for firing on farmers and bringing "black Diwali" for them.
The violence prompted the state transport corporation to cancel bus services on Ichalkaranji-Sangli and Pandharpur-Solapur routes causing inconvenience to common people. Justifying the stand taken by Raju Shetty, also an MP, Hazare said that "By firing on farmers, the government tried to suppress their agitation...This will always be remembered as a 'Black Diwali". He, however, appealed to farmers to shun violence.
A farmer was killed in police firing in Sangli on Monday after a group of peasants tried to lock a police team inside a hotel at Nandre village after learning that Shetty was detained in Pune district. In an indication that simmering protests might snowball into a major political issue, Hazare alleged that NCP chief Sharad Pawar was responsible for the present agrarian crisis.
NCP is a coalition partner in the Democratic Front government led by chief minister Prithviraj Chavan. Maharashtra Pradesh Congress Committee president Manikrao Thakre, in an apparent reference to NCP, alleged that some sugar factories in western Maharashtra were pursuing a "hidden agenda".
"We want the management of sugar companies to drop their hidden agenda and sit across the table with farmers so that they can get competitive price for their produce," Thakre said. NCP controls a sizable number of sugar factories in the political stronghold of western Maharashtra, popularly known as the sugar belt of the state.
Thakre, however, denied the allegations of Swabhiman Shetkari Sanghatana chief Sadubhau Khot that the "cold war" between Pawar and his nephew Ajit Pawar is denying farmers the appropriate price for their produce.
(With additional inputs from PTI)