With three fourths canes crushed, public sugar mills this year are bracing for one of the worst years for sugar recovery as production has already hit the lowest in the country’s history spanning five decades.
A total of 38,422 tonnes of sugar was produced until Monday from crushing almost seven lakh tonnes of canes with cane crushing in two of the nine state-owned mills already completed.
The sugar recovery so far in the 2020-2021 fiscal stands at 5.57 per cent, the lowest in the country’s history with possibilities of it falling further by the time cane crushing is completed in April.
‘Delays in harvest and crushing are responsible for the poor recovery and production,’ said Abdul Latif, chief of Cane Production and Expansion, Bangladesh Sugar and Food Industries Corporation.
Sugar production is directly related to timely harvest and cane crushing which were greatly hampered on the account of six of the 15 state-owned mills abruptly stopping cane crushing from early December 2020.
Though cane crushing usually begins in November, it did not kick off until late December in 2020.
Sugar cane is usually harvested in line with the daily crushing capacity of the sugar mills, so a careful harvesting planning is essential to gain the best output because the delay in crushing can also drastically reduce its sugar concentration.
The time needed for crushing since harvest also increased this year for the growers who produced cane for mills whose operations were suspended. Additionally, cane growers are forced to travel a long way to reach the mills that are now in operation.
Farmers said that the time to suspend operation at sugar mills would not have been worse and they wondered over the rationale behind such a decision.
They said that the government could easily have suspended operations at the mills after the crushing season was over, which would have been mostly completed by now had crushing begun in time.
‘It is not inefficiency causing these inconveniences but it was skilfully, deliberately planned,’ economist Anu Muhammad told New Age.
‘This is a scheme which has been in implementation for the past few decades to the detriment of national and public interests,’ he said.
Interest groups such as refined sugar importers and businessmen are influencing the government institutions that are manipulating the situation while they are well aware of the fact that delays in harvest and crushing reduce production and recovery, he argued.
In 2019-20, 15 state-owned sugar mills produced 80,747 tonnes after crushing 1,376,396 tonnes of cane at 5.88 per cent recovery.
Before the 2020-2021 fiscal, the lowest sugar recovery of 5.77 per cent was recorded in 2017-18 with 68,000 tonnes of sugar produced from crushing over 2 million tonnes of cane.
The BSFIC estimated this year it might crush a maximum of 900,000 tonnes, meeting half the target of 16.43 lakh tonnes for 2020-2021.
With the current recovery rate with the maximum of canes already crushed, the sugar production could reach up to about 49,000 tonnes, far below the target of 1.15 lakh tonnes, said BSFIC officials.
Only twice in the last five decades since Bangladesh became independent did the domestic sugar production fall below 50,000 tonnes — 24,000 tonnes in 1971-72 and about 20,000 tonnes the year after.
The nine state-owned sugar mills still in operation are old and are overwhelmed with their limited capacity to crush the additional supply of canes from the sugar mills that had suspended operation.
Cane growers in some areas are still without a clue as to when they would be able to harvest their cane, with some growers fearing that they might need to wait till April for their turn to supply cane to come.
Bangladesh Sugarcane Research Institute director general Amzad Hossain said that canes harvested in 10 to 12 months of their cultivation yield the best output.
‘For the best output in Bangladesh, cane has to be harvested by January,’ he clarified.
Additionally, he said, following harvest of cane, fermentation sets in after 24 hours leading to a significant depletion of sugar by the hour.
In the past, public mills rarely met these deadlines to get the best output and the situation was particularly bad this year for the diversion of canes from mills that had suspended operation to the ones that are in operation.
BSFIC officials said that the time spent between harvest and crushing increased to three days or even more this year.
Over a fifth of the canes are still in the fields as March approaches, the month when soil gets dry fast sucking out moisture from canes, BSRI officials said.
‘We are running low on all fronts,’ said Obaidul Haque, a sugarcane farmer of Bochaganj, Dinajpur, who used to supply cane to the closed Shetabganj sugar mill.
Obaidul is now supplying his canes to Thakurgaon sugar mill.
‘The mill is old and has to remain shut for three to four hours after an hour of operation,’ he said.
A long queue of cane-loaded trucks is always seen at the mill gate waiting to deliver canes harvested fairly long ago, he said.
Obaidul, who still has three acres of field full of canes, estimated that canes would lose weight due to overstay in the field and this would cost him Tk 3 lakh in loss.
His peers in Dinajpur have already met the same fate.
The loss in output is likely to increase the overall loss of public sugar mills because of the absence of the six government mills in which crushing was temporarily suspended in 2020.
The closure of the mills may have reduced maintenance cost to some extent but the overall loss would not be recovered as their workers were retained while production fell, said BSFIC officials.
In the past 50 years since independence, public sugar mills saw profits in 13 years, 10 of the profit-making years occurred during the first 12 years of independence in 1971, showed BSFIC data.
Last year, the overall loss of the sugar mills reached about Tk 1,000 crore with over Tk 400 crore owed to cane growers and the workers of the sugar mills.
The poor sugar recovery is set to further push the production cost up which was Tk 183 per kilogram, treble the local market price of Tk 58.
The BSFIC in 2020 spent five times more than India and three times more than Pakistan to produce a kilogram of sugar.
The production cost of a kilogram of sugar was Tk 218 in 2018-19.
Bangladesh was able to recover 8 per cent of sugar in 22 years while the country could only exceed this rate by reaching 8.77 per cent in 1989-90.
Brazil, the largest sugar producer in the world, recovers 14 per cent sugar from its canes while the rate is about 12 per cent in some Indian states.
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