Agricultural labourers from Marathwada have had a yearly routine for over past four decades now.
Every kharif season they toil as daily-wagers in the fields of their villages. Around Diwali,the time when sugarcane crop matures,they take their children out of schools,lock their houses and leave the dry countryside for greener pastures in Western Maharashtra to work as sugarcane harvest labourers. For the next 5-6 months,till the monsoon arrives,they cut canes from the fields and ferry them to factories for crushing. It is during this seasonal stint that these labourers make most of their earnings and savings.
This time,however,around 2-2.5 lakh cane harvesting labourers will have to look for another job as the sugar factories in Western Maharashtra will not need them any longer. This year onwards,most of the factories will harvest sugarcane with mechanical cane harvesters.
The Maharashtra government,with the help of the Union Agriculture Ministry,is going to provide subsidy to the sugar factories to buy mechanical harvesters that will be imported from Holland and Bangkok. The government will provide Rs 100 crore for buying 200 sugarcane harvesting machines this year and would bear about half the cost of the machines, said Harshvardhan Patil,Minister of Co-operation,Government of Maharashtra in June this year. Each harvester costs around Rs 1 crore each and most of the sugar factories have placed orders for the machines.
But the government incentive is not the only reason for factories to go for these machines. The efficiency,speed and quality of work are all better than manual labour.
The machine is unbelievably fast. It can harvest about 225 to 250 tonnes of cane per day. For the same amount of harvesting,you require eight workers who work for 16 days. Besides,the factories do not have to cope up with the problems that labourers bring,like strikes,demands and associations, said Prof D M Veer,Cane and Jaggery Research Station,Kolhapur.
Sadashivrao Pachpute,Chairman of Saikrupa Sugar Factory,Hiradgaon in Shrigonda Taluka of Ahmednagar district said,We have ordered four harvesters. Its more profitable for us than manual harvesting. We have also conveyed to the growers in our area to plant sugarcane by following the 4-feet strip method. We will start mechanical harvesting from this year.
In order to use a cane harvester,farmers need to change the method of plantation. The traditional method of ridges and furrows is being replaced by the strip method with 4 to 4.5 feet distance between two rows of cane.
After instructions from sugar factories,I have followed the new method of plantation while planting sugarcane on my field of 10 acres, said Bhausaheb Dhabhade,a farmer from village Dahigaone in Ahmednagar district.
Factory owners are hopeful that the orders placed with the Australian firms will arrive before October and that they will be able to use them from the start of the season.
Significantly,farm labourers in Beed,Osmanabad,Jalna and Parbhani,which export a bulk of cane harvester labourers to Western Maharashtra,are still unaware that the demand for farm hands will be significantly lower with every passing year.
Usually by Nag Panchami,which was on August 4 this year,the labour contractors start visiting villages looking for labourers and also offering advance money.
This year no muqadam (contractor) has come here as yet, said Kashiram Limbore,32,from Dhalegaon,a village in Parbhani district. Kashiram works as a waiter in a dhaba before he migrates to work in the sugar fields.
Tell him about that mechanical harvesters have arrived in Western Maharashtra and he says,Then I will have to keep working in the dhaba. One has to work very hard as a cane harvester but at the end of the season you get bulk money. Last season we (he and his wife) saved Rs 40,000.