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 place from where drinking water can be easily accessed. As for their meals, the labourers and their families have to fend for themselves. The migrant families bring with them some ration, including sorghum, jowar and rice, and buy other essentials or consumables from the weekly bazaar held nearby.
Satish Joshi, member of an advocacy group fighting for the rights of farmers and associated labourers, laments that despite being the “backbone of the sugar industry, nobody cares for the harvesters”. “They are not entitled to any privileges and continue to be the lowest-paid among different categories of unorganised labourers. We need policy-level measures to ensure they get minimum wages and other privileges to lead a dignified life,” he says.
K B Aware, president of Jawahar Cooperative Sugar Mill, Upari in Kolhapur district, stresses the need for government welfare measures for sugarcane harvesters. “While mills try to take care of the health and other issues of the labourers and their children during the crushing season, there is a lack of official efforts to improve their lives. A separate government policy is needed for their welfare,” he says.
Some leading sugar mills provide aid in case of medical emergencies, and run makeshift schools that provide informal education to children of the labourers. But many of these schools were dismantled after the Right to Education Act came into force in 2009. Jaywant Sugars Ltd, the mill for which More cuts the harvest, runs no school, he says. Quite often, because the harvesters don’t directly work for the mills, they have little information about how to seek help from them. Jaywant Sugars Ltd is located 60 km away from the fields, making it even more inaccessible for the harvesters.
But the labourers are aware of the official apathy. “There is no government scheme that covers us. Long back, I had heard that the government was to start mobile clinics and schools for us. But that’s remained on paper,” says More, who hopes to find work as a daily wage labour on construction sites after he returns to his village.
More is also worried that machines may snatch away his employment permanently. “Only small farms need us. But larger fields are substituting machines for manual labour. We can only watch helplessly,” he says.