Jaiveer, an 80-year-old sugarcane farmer from Saharanpur, remembers the time when he used to be proud of growing crops for the country.
"We were respected for feeding fellow countrymen and we used to treat it as our responsibility," he said. "We have also seen the time when Chaudhary Devi Lal Ji (former deputy prime minister) opened the gates of the five-star Ashoka Hotel for us," he said in the village of Sarsina, 12 km from Saharanpur.
But now it is all Jai Jawan, no more Jai Kisan, he rued. "We have been reduced to the status of beggars in recent years."
"No more Jai Kisan, just Jai Jawan. We have seen a different India when we had a sense of participation in the country's progress. Seeing our current condition, our children are not ready to enter farming. My worry is that who will feed the 130 crore Indians after we die," he said, remembering the famous slogan 'Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan' of the second prime minister Lal Bahadur Shastri. Standing next to him, his brother, another sugarcane farmer, Suresh Tyagi said life has not been easy for them.
"We are also fighting a war. A war to survive, a war to feed our family. Why our lives don't matter," he asked. Jaiveer and Suresh are among hundreds of sugarcane farmers living in Saharanpur district which comes under the sugar belt of western UP.
Uttar Pradesh is the largest producer of sugarcane in India, accounting for 45 per cent of the country's output for 2018-19, according to the data on the website of the Indian Sugar Mills association. The UP government has fixed the state advised price (SAP) at Rs 325 per quintal for an early variety of sugarcane and at Rs 315 per quintal for a general variety of sugarcane.
But sugar mills are unable to pay farmers as excess production led to a fall in prices of sugar. A sugar mill owner in Saharanpur who did not wish to be identified said they do not decide the price of sugar and they are in heavy debt themselves and don't have money to pay the dues but farmers believe that it is just a lie and they are taking advantage of their high productivity by giving money in infrequent installations.
"Growing sugarcane takes two years. Once we have sown the seeds the sugar mill owners know that where else can we sell. We have to go to them and they take advantage of the situation," said Shyam Yadav, a sugarcane farmer in Talheri Buzurg village, 24 km from Saharanpur. Last week, Prime Minister Narendra Modi promised to clear the dues of the sugarcane farmers, which, according to news reports, has touched Rs 10,000 crore.
But farmers are sceptical and they believe that it might be a gimmick before elections. "We will not be fooled again. We first trusted the government with Modi and even the state government with Yogi but enough is enough," Umesh Yadav, a sugarcane farmer from Nakur, 25 km from Saharanpur, said.
He said his dues worth Rs 2.5 lakh are yet to be paid by the sugar mills. These sugarcane farmers say they will cast their votes but only after seeing who includes pro-farmer agenda in their manifesto.
A senior BJP leader said the condition of the sugarcane farmers are a lot better than it used to be in previous governments. Citing the state government data, he said the cultivated area is up by over 20 per cent to 2.8 million hectares and sugarcane production climbed 17 per cent to 213 million tonnes in 2017-18.
Farmers said they are feeling the absence of a strong farmer leader who can make the government accept their "legitimate" demands. Currently, it is a three-way keenly fought contest between the Congress, BJP and the mahagathbandhan of SP-BSP-RLD and all the three parties are promising to get the issue of unpaid dues resolved at the earliest but the farmers are keeping their cards close to their chests.
Congress is fielding its seasoned leader Imran Masood while incumbent Raghav Lakhan Pal would be contesting on a BJP ticket. The BSP has pitched Faizul Rehman. Saharanpur has a total of 17,22,580 voters out of which six lakh are Muslims.
There are around three lakh SC/ST voters followed by 1.5 lakh Gujjars. There are a total of 8,00,393 female voters in the constituency. Saharanpur goes to poll in the first phase of Lok Sabha elections on April 11.
Pal, the incumbent BJP leader, says his party has got most dues cleared of the sugarcane farmers. Even the dues that were to be paid by previous governments was cleared by his government and the remaining dues of the farmers would be also paid at the earliest. "Our government has taken most pro-farmer steps than any other previous governments," he said.
Masood, of Congress, said if voted to power, he would chalk out a "roadmap" with sugar mill owners to look for ways to pay the dues at the earliest. "Wherever there is a Congress government, farmers are happy in those states," he said.
The mahagathbandhan candidate Rehman said, "I will make sure that every penny of the farmers is paid. BJP has fooled the farmers. If I am voted, taking care of them would be my utmost priority". In 2014, Pal won with a narrow margin of 65,090 votes.
Masood came a close second with 4,07, 909 votes cast for him. Jagdish Singh Rana contested from BSP and he got 2,35,033 votes while SP candidate Shahjan Masood got 52,765 votes.
(With inputs from agencies.)