It’s a misty winter night and the cool breeze ruffles a row of tarpaulin tents perched a few metres away from sugarcane fields. A lean 21-year-old Santosh More sits outside one of the tents, applying henna on his palms. He doesn’t make intricate designs, painting his palms entirely with henna instead. “I apply mehndi twice a week during the night, as medicines are too expensive to smoothen my rough hands,” says More matter-of-factly.
More’s hands are rough, swollen and dry as he has been cutting sugarcane every day with a sickle, from dawn to dusk, since November, and will continue to do so at least till March. It’s an assignment he has travelled 400 kilometres for, from his native village Jalkot in Latur district to Mangalapur hamlet in Koregaon taluka of Satara district, the sugar bowl of Maharashtra.
More is a member of a large, unorganised group of labourers who migrate every year from Maharashtra’s economically backward districts of Beed, Osmanabad and Latur to the sugarcane belt comprising Sangli, Satara, Pune, Solapur and Kolhapur districts in the western part of the state. The Sugar Commissionerate Maharashtra State has no official record of the migrant labours, but social and advocacy groups fighting for their rights put their number at more than three lakh.
A local mukadam or contractor awards them the contract of sugarcane-cutting, which includes a payment of Rs 50,000 to Rs 70,000 to the labourer for the entire season. But the unit ‘labourer’ is actually a pair of husband and wife, or two men. So, each harvester gets half the amount. A large chunk of the money, though, is paid before the season.
The labourers, who cut the crops for sugar mills for six months, are part of the bigger story of Maharashtra being the country’s largest sugar producer. The state produced 79.94 lakh tonnes of sugar after crushing 701 lakh tonnes of sugarcane, with a total of 172 mills operational in 2012-13. But these figures are not a source of pride for migrant labourers like More, for whom the seasonal employment is more a matter of compulsion than choice. “I have no choice but to work here. I had to quit education after class VIII. With no other work on hand, I decided to join my family members as a sugarcane harvester. My first season was last year. Though the job involves lot of hardship, this year too, I decided to join them,” he says.
More has no stipulated working hours for any given day. “After the whole day’s work, we have to load the sugarcane onto trucks for transporting it to sugar factories in the evening or night,” he says.
Along with More, around 20 people from his village (together, they are called toli or troop) live in a makeshift colony of shanties, settled at a convenient continued…