MORE THAN 50,000 sugarcane harvest labourers, mostly from Beed and Ahmednagar districts, who are working hundreds of kilometres away from home, are either struggling to return or continue to work in groups with neither protective gear nor accessible medical care. While cane crushing season has ended for a large number of factories, 15 to 20 sugar mills in western Maharashtra are still operational. These factories have been exempted from the 21-day nationwide lockdown announced in the wake of novel coronavirus outbreak.
On Friday, following concerns raised by workers and leaders, the state’s sugar commissionerate issued instructions to factories, those still operating and those who have completed their crushing, to make arrangements for the workers’ accommodation and food as well as to provide hand sanitisers, water and to ensure social distancing measures. Workers and activists both said these measures are impractical and unrealistic.
“We work in groups of 15 to 20, and there is a sense of fear among us because there are so many COVID-19 positive cases in Sangli district, including the recent new ones,” said Ravi Rathod of Talkhed village in Beed’s Majalgaon district. He is currently working as a cane harvest labourer in Walwa, Sangli, along with his wife, about 280 km from his home. There are 23 positive coronavirus positive cases in Sangli district.
“We see the WhatsApp forwards and news reports and realise something very serious is going on and we have no way of protecting ourselves,” Rathod said.
About 2,500 labourers are currently living in cane fields around the Walwa factory, where the crushing season is expected to continue for another three weeks. Labourers have not been provided any masks, the labourer said, nor any information or sensitisation about protective measures.
Ashok Dake of Nithrud village in Majalgaon said around 150 workers from his village are still to return, some of them from Sangli. “If they’re coming back from Sangli, where there are positive cases, there will naturally be fear among other villagers. Workers need to be provided medical assistance and health check-ups now, before they leave for their home villages and when they return.”
Across Beed’s villages, from where labourers have gone to Sangli, Satara and Kolhapur, there is fear and confusion about how to prevent transmission once the workers return. Deepak Nagargoje of Shantivan in Beed’s Arvi village, an organisation that looks after the children of cane workers, said the government is on one hand advising people to break the chain and, on the other hand, allowing groups of workers, totalling several lakhs, to continue working together in groups even in a district that has positive cases.
“At least 18 factories are still functional, including many owned by Maharashtra ministers. Surely, they have to be made answerable about the health of their workers and eventually the likelihood of transmission due to not following any precautionary practices right now,” Nagargoje said.
Rathod, meanwhile, said they are anticipating rains in the coming week as per weather bureau forecasts, and the mostly uneducated labourers, who live in rudimentary structures in the fields, are terrified of contracting the virus. “Last week one member of our toli had diarrhoea and we spent the whole day trying to get him medicines. We live five km from the village where shops are closed. We’re struggling to even buy basic vegetables,” he said.
Rathod, 21, completed an ITI course after class XII but with no jobs available, he followed his family’s profession as a cane labourer for the first time this year. They do not have sanitation facilities nor pucca living arrangement.
Keshav Nagargoje, who was appointed chairman of the Gopinath Munde Maharashtra Sugarcane Harvesting and Carting Workers Board by the previous government just before state Assembly elections in 2019, said some factories closed operations in the past few days and some others are expected do so in the coming week. “At least 15,000 workers are stuck in factories that just finished their crushing operations, they want to return home but there are tremendous difficulties in accessing transportation and getting across the sealed district borders,” he said. Nearly 5 lakh sugarcane harvest labourers travel every year from Beed district to factories in western Maharashtra, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. Nagargoje said approximately 40,000 workers are at factories where operations continue, most of them reluctant to continue working amid the fear of the disease.
Mohan Jadhav of the Maharashtra Oos Todni Kamgar Sanghatana, a cane workers’ union, said cane factories had made no effort to sensitise field workers about the COVID-19 outbreak or take protective measures against it. “They should shut the factories and get people home safely or they should make sure that the social distancing measures, recommended by the World Health Organisation, are followed in their fields and mills. We have raised the issue with the state government,” Jadhav told The Indian Express.
Abasaheb Patil, managing director of the Karad-based Sahyadri Cooperative Sugar Mill, meanwhile, said while they have distributed masks among their labourers, the 9,000 harvesters and transportation labourers attached with their mill might not stay till the end of the season. “Of course, they fear for their life and it is justified. We have given them masks and as they stay mostly in the fields, they are isolated from the main village… We are taking ample precautions, but still doubt whether labourers will stay till the end of the crushing season in May,” he said. The mill, which is managed by the state cooperation minister Balasaheb Patil, has also made arrangements for ration, like rice and oil, for its labourers.
With inputs from
Partha Sarathi Biswas, Pune
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