In the run-up to Gujarat assembly election, the dipping prices and rising cost of production of sugarcane has become a major poll issue in rural belts of Surat, Navsari and newly-formed Tapi district of south Gujarat.
Surat district is not only the largest sugarcane producing region of the state, but also houses a large number of rich and influential farmers.
The sight of the endless expanse of sugarcanes plantations meets one's eyes while traveling through the rural belts of south Gujarat including those in Surat district.
The four Scheduled Tribe constituencies of Mahuva, Mangrol, Bardoli and Kamrej account for most of the sugarcane production in Surat district.
"This year, the issue of sugarcane price will definitely affect voting patterns in rural parts of Surat district," says Arvind Patel, a farmer who owns 60 acres of land in Karachaka village.
"The biggest issue is the falling prices of sugarcane," Patel said.
"This year, the prices of sugarcane have dipped drastically and one ton of sugarcane is fetching just Rs 950 as compared to Rs 1500-1600 it used to fetch last year. The farmers in the region are very unhappy with the policies of the Gujarat government," Patel remarked, adding the government in the last five years had largely ignored the agriculture sector and have concentrated on promoting industries.
"Secondly, most of the farmers are unhappy with the rising electricity tariff and irregular power supply," Patel said.
"The high electricity tariff adds to the cost of production of sugarcane which unlike other crops is harvested only once a year," he said while explaining that sugarcane takes nine months to reap.
Similar sentiments are echoed by Hitesh Patel, a small farmer from Nizar village of Surat district: "Apart from rising electricity tariffs and dipping sugarcane rates, farmers are also worried over prices of fertilizers, which has shot up by about Rs 80 for a 50 kg bag."
The discontent among the farmers was evident in the 2004 Lok Sabha elections when Congress had won in the region.
In 2004, there was a shift in voting patterns as it was Bharatiya Janata Party, which had won all the seats (except Bardoli) in the rural belt of Surat.
The importance associated with sugarcane in this region can be gauged from the fact that there are about seven sugar mills in Surat district alone.
Talking about the seriousness of the sugarcane price issue confronting the farmers of the region, another planter Arun Patel from Gogi village of Surat district says, "We receive 24-hour electricity supply in our homes. But we want regular supply of electricity in our farms, which are the source of income for our families."
"Moreover, every alternate week the electricity is supplied to us between 2200-0700 hours," he said adding "no farmer will take the risk to go to the fields at night to irrigate the land. Moreover, there are no labourers available to work on the farms at night."
"The Modi government's talk about 24-hour three-phase supply to all villages of Gujarat is just an eyewash," he said.
A young farmer Sanjay Erthana of Manekpor village says the water tax levied on farmers for using water from irrigation canals have increased by 15 percent every year since the last five years.
"This has translated into additional cost for farmers," he adds.
Moreover, there are several villages in the region, which do not have irrigation facilities as the government has not concentrated on building branch canals which will carry water to the fields from the main canal, he says.
"Attempts at introducing drip irrigation in sugarcane fields have largely been unsuccessful," Sanjay points out.