THE SOUND of ghungroos associated with sugarcane juice stalls in the city is missing from these hand-pulled carts. A common sight in the suburbs of Navi Mumbai and Thane, however, is a steady crowd around the carts, seeking a quick respite from the heat by guzzling sugarcane juice on street corners. The people operating these carts are mostly farmers from rural Maharashtra. Competing with sugarcane juice stalls, pulling along the hand-cart business is a tough task.
Sunita and Ashok Andhale, a farmer couple from Ahmednagar, have come to Navi Mumbai for the first time this year. The two work as labourers in farms to cut sugarcane back home. With not much work between October and May, the couple decided to come to the big city this time, like others from their village have before this. The two first bought a cart built in a workshop in Ahmednagar from money got by selling their cattle. They then hired a tempo and brought the cart to Navi Mumbai. The first few days they observed other carts, before setting out to assemble their own.
“It took one whole day to build it together from dismantled parts,” says Sunita. The three-wheeled cart has two wooden crushers between which the sugarcane sticks are placed. A long handle on top has to be pushed with a lot of strength to crush the sugarcane for its juice.
Sunita and Ashok begin their day around 10 am, when the sugarcane is delivered to them from the nearby APMC market. They also buy ice, lemon and plastic glasses for the day before lugging the cart to a street corner, despite their frail frame. “We carry many kilograms of sugarcane on the cart, so it becomes very heavy. The work involves so much labour that by the end of the day, we are too tired to walk,” says Ashok. They work till 8 pm before returning to their rented space nearby.
The couple is hopeful of making more money than their Rs 500 per day as labourers back home. Their three children, including a toddler, are in the care of their parents. “We miss them but only manage to speak to them once or twice a week. It is difficult to make ends meet with the meagre amount we earn at home, and that is why we came here,” Sunita says. For now, the couple is attempting to get used to the city hustle.
They skip lunch every day, too shy to eat in a public place on a road. “We do not eat sitting on the road in our village. We are not comfortable doing that here,” 25-year old Sunita says.
Others, like 22-year old Rajendra Shirsat, also from Ahmednagar, have been coming to Navi Mumbai for a few years now. “We first came here over four years ago. We have a small farm for jowar and bajra in Ahmednagar district. We will go home once monsoon begins and the demand for sugarcane juice goes down,” Shirsat says.
Neelam,too, has been operating a cart for a few years in Navi Mumbai. “Earlier, I used to hire a man from the labour market every day to help me with the cart. On days the labourer did not turn up, I would end up losing the entire day’s earning, since I could not operate the cart by myself,” she says.
Neelam then took a loan and bought a motor, through which the crushers could turn without any manual push. Estranged from her husband, Neelam single-handedly manages the cart to make enough for her only son’s education. “I began this work to earn more than I would as a domestic worker in other people’s homes. Summer is a good time, even though I will have to work in the scorching heat through the next two months. If I don’t slog in the heat, I will not make my son’s life better,” she says.