Recently, the government has taken steps to develop the country's traditional sources of income - jute and the hilsha. However, experts have opined that other sectors should be included in the list of improvisation. Why not help grow sugarcane cultivation? According to media reports, sugar mills are being shut down one by one. Indeed, the factories remain open only during the crushing period of sugarcane but sugarcane farmers have failed to deliver their supplies to the sugar mills in a consistent manner. This has been the case for the last ten years.
Arguably, heavy sugar manufacturing units were established in the north and south-western districts of Bangladesh. Due to the existence of dry weather and lands for concentrated vegetation, agro-based industries similar to sugar mills have been installed in that area. Unfortunately, Bangladesh's sugar industry has experienced a continuous decline and hence sugarcane cultivation fell sharply over the years. Sources claimed that 220,000 acres of land were supposed to be brought under sugarcane cultivation. In 2008-2009 fiscal year, only 1.28 acres of land grew the plant's seed.
Several reasons exist for the decline of sugarcane. Farmers hardly attain sufficient incomes from supplying raw sugarcanes to mills. It is more lucrative for farmers to crush the sugarcanes themselves and sell molasses. Since the sugarcane cultivators are somewhat marginalised in terms of economic growth, the prolonged cultivation of sugarcane is being replaced by the speedy cultivation of other popular cash crops. Besides, farmers earlier used to growing sugarcanes have opted for cultivation of vegetables and fruits alongside major cash crops thanks to flexible irrigation.
At present, there are 20 sugar mills in Bangladesh and most of them are 60 to 80 years old and even the four post-1971 units have passed four decades. Experts suggest immediate shutdown of the sugar mills amidst a severe loss of government revenue and the heavy cost of maintaining such aged factories. The longevity of sugar mills is about 20 years. Therefore, running an obsolete manufacturing unit with taxpayer's money is not a rational policy. Bangladesh needs to establish modern and advanced sugarcane processing plants. It also needs an efficient workforce. Since a qualitative disadvantage in processing sugarcanes exists, ways should be found out to make production sustainable. In recent times, rising production cost has been causing price hikes for sugar.
Nowadays, the demand for naturally produced sugar has been upset by the emergence of synthetic and extremely cheap white sugar - refined on a mass-production scale by private enterprises with raw materials imported from other countries. Moreover, such artificial sugar products are extremely hazardous to human body, causing various types of cancer and heart diseases.
Sugar industry has been considered a traditional source of income in the entire region of Bengal for 250 years. People must feel really disheartened by the gradual decline of sugarcane cultivation. Sugar manufactured in historic Bengal was once exported to Iraq, Iran, Arabian Peninsula and South Africa.
The government should give incentives to sugarcane cultivation so that the ever-increasing demand for natural sugar can be sustained along with exporting sugar and other sugarcane-derived products. This is why farmers interested in the cultivation of sugarcane must be provided with a constant flow of cheap-priced and high-quality fertilisers, seeds and insecticides. To motivate them further, farming loans should be ensured. The farmers should be assured that they are getting a fair price from sugar mills. Furthermore, special compensation can be distributed to the demoralised sugarcane cultivators. Their incomes from molasses also have room for subsidisation.
In order to prevent the consumption of industrialised white sugar, the imports must be minimised. Due to the absence of regulating molasses production through private crushers, nationalised sugar mills lost Tk1.14 billion in the last two decades. Sugarcane cultivation must remain in those areas where the mills are currently located. The government must create a long-term strategy to revive the country's sugarcane cultivation and sugar industry.