Nearly a year ago, sugarcane farmers from some mid-Tarai districts had come to Kathmandu to protest. They were asking for payment of their dues, some pending for six years, from various sugar mills. An agreement was signed with mill owners on 3 January 2020. Almost a year after the agreement, the still-unpaid farmers are back in Kathmandu. In total, around 20,000 farmers are yet to be paid.
Different political and apolitical groups have been supporting the farmer strike at Maitighar Mandala. Among the most noticeable ones are the youths with no political affiliations.
Youths from the renowned Facebook groups like MRR and Sisterhood Nepal (SN), as well as social organizations like 100’s Group and Hamro Team Nepal, are lending their support. They coordinate the protest and help farmers with foods, water, and warm clothes.
Some youths who have been to the Maitighar Mandala are themselves sons and daughters of struggling farmers. Arjun Gaire, 28, who lives in New Baneswor, goes there on a regular basis and stands with the farmers for a couple of hours, if not the whole day, carrying a pamphlet.
Gaire sees many political leaders and cadres visit the site and give speeches in consolation. “Frankly, they seem to come for their own vested interests. I hope the support of independent youths like me will give the protest greater legitimacy and profile,” he says. Gaire adds that he is himself encouraged by active participation of other selfless youths.
Young people from Tarai districts have also come to Kathmandu to express their support for the aging sugarcane farmers who are protesting. “I am from a farmer family and I live in a farming community,” says Nabin Yadav, 25, from Sarlahi. An MBBS student in Bangladesh, Yadav has been on an extended ‘pandemic leave’. “I thought, what better way to spend my spare time than by supporting these farmers whose struggles I have personally witnessed.”
He sympathizes with the protesting farmers who are catching Kathmandu’s biting cold. Yadav is also unhappy with the number of youths supporting the movement. So is Bablu Gupta, 22, the founder of 100’s Group, a youths-led social organization, whose members have been protesting with the farmers at Maitighar Mandala from Day One. Both Yadav and Gupta rue the fact that while youths are quick to join protests with political agendas they seem to ignore important social agenda like justice for poor farmers.
Gupta says he is working as a coordinator to bring together different youth groups. “Besides feeding the sugarcane farmers, our group also encourages others to support the farmers’ fight for justice.”
Nabin Bhandari, 21, an active member of Mens Room Reloaded (MRR)—the Facebook group with around 45,000 Nepali males from all parts of the globe as its members—has been also been volunteering in the ongoing protests.
In a symbolic gesture protesting government apathy towards sugarcane farmers, MRR regularly conducts the ‘Ek Muthi Chini Daan’ program at Maitighar Mandala. In the program, some farmers and protest participants each symbolically donates a fistful of sugar. The sugar-bag is then handed over to concerned authorities. Bhandari reckons all fair-minded people should support the farmers’ movement.
Similarly, Sisterhood Nepal (SN), an active Facebook group of young Nepali women, has joined the protest and it is also providing protesting farmers with trousers and warm hats. Lhameen Lama, 23, an active SN member, says she came to add her voice to the protest. “It is our duty. If we keep mum on these important issues, how can we call ourselves conscionable Nepali youths?” she asks.
According to the farmers, among the various sugar mills that owe them are: Rautahat-based Annapurna Sugar Mill (Rs 300 million) and Shreeram Sugar Mill (Rs 350 million); Nawalparasi-based Lumbini Sugar Mill (Rs 100 million), Indira Sugar Mill (Rs 80 million), and Bagmati Khandsari Sugar Mill (Rs 4 million); and Sarlahi-based Mahalaxmi Sugar Mill (Rs 60 million).
Of these, following the protests and as of this writing, Shreeram Sugar Mill had deposited Rs 164 million in the farmers’ accounts and promised to clear the rest of the dues by December 23. Lumbini Sugar Mill has issued a notice informing that its payments would start on January 15. These mill operators were forced to cough up after the District Administration Offices of Sarlahi, Rautahat, and Nawalparasi issued arrest warrants against offending mill owners.
Hamro Team Nepal, another youth-led social organization, is helping farmers with lodging, food, banners, sitting mat, and water, according to Bimal Pant, its chairman. The group is also helping with the management of the protests.
Pant says things should never have come this far; farmers should not have to stage protests to be paid. “We youths have the voice to make a change, and we should use our voice,” he adds.
The farmers at Maitighar Mandala are delighted with active youth support. Ramlal Kalwar, a 70-year-old farmer from Kapilvastu, comes and sits on the cold asphalt in protest every day. He is in no mood to leave Kathmandu without being fully paid. “The strong youth presence has attracted even more people to our protest. I am sure our collective effort will bear fruit in the near future,” Kalwar says.