Why Motihari sugar mill workers are bitter over Modis ‘sweet’ promise of 2014
The Shree Hanuman Sugar Factory, popularly known as Motihari Chini Mill, was shut down in 2002. Some 500 to 600 workers were employed in the mill at that time, and thousands of farmers were dependent on it for selling their sugarcane. All of them were suddenly left in the lurch | Photo courtesy: X/@Jairam_Ramesh

Why Motihari sugar mill workers are bitter over Modi's ‘sweet’ promise of 2014

At an election meeting in Motihari in 2014, Modi had assured the people that on his next visit, he would sip a cup of tea with sugar made in the reopened mill; it never came to be

Much water has flown down the Ganga over the past decade. India has landed on the Moon and the BJP government at the Centre has claimed to make India a $5-trillion economy by next year.

For the workers of a closed sugar mill in Bihar’s Motihari, though, the dream has been quite simple — to sip a cup of tea sweetened with the sugar produced at their reopened mill with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a promise he made in an impassioned election speech a decade ago. It never came true.

Modi was not the Prime Minister then. He was the prime ministerial candidate of the BJP-led NDA, when, during the campaign for the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, he promised to reopen the Motihari sugar mill if voted to power.

Ten years on, as he seeks a third term for himself and the NDA government at the Centre, Modi addressed an election rally in Motihari today (May 21), to seek votes for the incumbent BJP MP of Purvi Champaran constituency, Radha Mohan Singh. To their shock and disbelief, Modi did not even bother to talk about the (old) promise.

The farmers and mill workers have lost all hope of the sugar mill's reopening, which was once their pride and lifeline.

A failed promise

But they all still remember Modi’s promise. Suresh Prasad, one of the hundreds of workers of the defunct Motihari sugar mill, has been struggling to earn a decent living for over a decade. Now in his mid-fifties, Prasad said they have been “waiting for 10 years to have tea with Modi”. “It seems his promise was mere rhetorical because neither has the sugar mill reopened, nor has sugar production started. Modi may have forgotten his promise, but we have not forgotten what he had said,” he said.

In the past decade, nothing has changed on the ground for the Motihari sugar mill. “Modi’s promise was a nice dream. But he did nothing on the ground and has maintained total silence after that. He totally ignored it in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections and the Bihar Assembly polls in 2020,” said Prasad.

Kamta Prasad Singh, another hapless former mill worker, said Modi had “cheated” them for votes.

Furious locals

The predominant view among the people in Motihari town and its neighbouring areas — which are part of the Purvi Champaran constituency — is that MP Radha Mohan Singh, a former Union Minister of Agriculture, did absolutely nothing to revive the sugar mill in his constituency in two decades. Singh has reportedly been facing angry people while seeking votes during his poll campaign.

The anger has been further fuelled by reports in local Hindi dailies in recent years that Singh and his aides are now trying to grab the premium land of the closed mill located near the national highway.

Modi was not the only one to show people the dream of reopening the mill. Nearly 19 years ago, when Nitish Kumar was voted to power for the first time in 2005, he had also pledged to reopen the Motihari sugar mill. But even after years in power, with his now-on, now-off relationship with the BJP, the promise has remained merely on paper.

A tragic fight for rights

The Opposition Mahagathbandhan, which included the Left parties, has made the closed sugar mill a poll issue and have been repeatedly accusing Modi of letting the people of Motihari down. A CPI leader said the mill workers’ fight for justice even resulted in two deaths in April 2017. Naresh Shrivastava and Suraj Baitha had set themselves ablaze while protesting against the non-payment of their dues, and had succumbed to injuries later.

According to the CPI leader, MP Radha Mohan Singh and local MLA Pramod Kumar, both of whom are from the BJP, never made any serious move for its revival. “Singh was never serious about re-opening the Motihari sugar mill. People are angry with him, as he has won this seat six times and is contesting it again. But he has been totally silent on the mill,” the CPI leader said.

In fact, MLA Pramod Kumar, as the Bihar sugarcane minister two and a half years ago, made it clear in public that it was not possible to re-open Motihari sugar mill. He had even asked the district magistrate to review the mill’s condition.

A bitter tale of betrayal

The Shree Hanuman Sugar Factory, popularly known as Motihari Chini Mill (sugar mill), was shut down in 2002. Some 500 to 600 workers were employed in the mill at that time, and thousands of farmers were dependent on it for selling their sugarcane. All of them were suddenly left in the lurch.

Since then, no sugarcane has been cultivated on the 100 acres of mill land. The factory, spread over 40 acres, still owes its workers and some 10,000 farmers around Rs 80 crore, while a large number of local farmers have stopped growing sugarcane, a major crop in Champaran region. East Champaran and West Champaran are the largest sugarcane-producing districts of Bihar, followed by Gopalganj, Sitamarhi, Samastipur, Madhubani, Vaishali and Siwan.

The Sugarcane Development Department’s official website says there are 28 sugar mills — 11 operational and 17 closed — in Bihar. Thousands of sugarcane farmers and workers across Bihar have requested the state and central governments time and again to reopen the closed sugar mills. In some places, they have repeatedly staged protests.

Ironically, Motihari is the district headquarters of East Champaran, site of Mahatma Gandhi’s first Satyagraha in 1917, which was in protest against the exorbitant taxes imposed by the British government on indigo farmers. Motihari is also birthplace of English novelist George Orwell, celebrated for his Animal Farm.

Opposition attack

Amid such circumstance, the words of Modi had meant more to the people in Motihari than a mere poll promise, said Vishwajeet Mukherjee, a local social activist. “I remember how seriously the locals had taken Modi’s promise. It had sparked a new ray of hope in them, but nothing happened. Modi is a powerful Prime Minister. He could have given a new lease of life to the sugar mill. But the workers and farmers never forgot,” he said.

Nor has the Opposition. As Motihari prepares to go to polls in the sixth phase of the elections on May 25, opposition parties have started reminding the PM about the promise made to Motihari sugar mill workers. Early this month, RJD chief Lalu Prasad asked Modi about the promise.

The former Bihar chief minister wrote on X (translated): “You (Modi) said in 2014, right, [that] you will get the sugar mill reopened and drink tea made from the sugar produced in this mill? It’s been 10 years. What happened to your promise? A Prime Minister who cannot open a small sugar mill in the state as per his promise… a Prime Minister who could not fulfil an iota of his tall promises in the past 10 years, starting from special state status… what benefit will Bihar get if such a Prime Minister roams the streets and performs street plays?”

A reminder from Opposition

Senior Congress leader Jairam Ramesh also posted on X: “Sugar holds great potential for Bihar’s economy. At their peak in the 1980s, sugar mills contributed a significant fraction of the state’s GDP. Bihar used to produce 40% of India’s sugarcane, but produces only 4% today. Over 30 sugar mills were operational, but today, the number is just 11.”

In another post on Tuesday, he wrote, “It has been 10 years since the outgoing PM promised that his government would reopen the Motihari Sugar Mill during his 2014 campaign. He had explicitly stated that he would come back to Motihari, and drink chai made with sugar from the long-defunct mill. Maybe this is why he has not gone back in 10 years. Today, when he goes back to Motihari, the people will demand answers. More than 300 former mill workers are still waiting to receive their pending salaries and pensions. The closure of the mill has also triggered a steady decline in Motihari’s economy. Now, sitting BJP MP Radha Mohan Singh claims that the outgoing PM never made any such promises. Till when will the BJP deceive the people of Motihari?”

Unsurprisingly, the BJP, which completely forgot to mention closed sugar mills during the ongoing election campaign so far, has suddenly started reiterating its promise. While Modi has, in recent years, maintained complete silence over his poll promise, the incumbent MP has apologised for his “mistakes”. Bihar BJP president Samrat Choudhary, who is also the deputy chief minister of the state, claimed last week that the Modi government was “working” to reopen the 14 closed sugar mills.

Read More
Next Story