A new supply problem: Harvesting labour shortage adds to Maharashtra mill woes

There is no dearth of cane in the state this year, but not enough people to cut and take it from fields.

Written by Parthasarathi Biswas | Satara (maharashtra) | Published: January 25, 2018 2:06:44 am
A mechanised sugarcane harvest at a field in Sangurdi village of Pune’s Khed taluka. (Photo: Daniel Stephen)

Sugar mills in Maharashtra are in their third month of crushing, but the Javali unit of the Kisan Veer Satara Sahakari Sakhar Karkhana is yet to start operations for the current 2017-18 season (October-September). The reason: An acute shortage of cane harvesting labourers or “oosh thodni kamgar”, as they are called in Marathi.

“Their supply is down 50 per cent this season. Even our mills at Wai and Khandala were, till recently, running at below capacity. We have never faced such a serious labour crisis,” complains Madan Prataprao Bhosale, chairman of the cooperative combine, whose all three units are in Satara district.

The 2016-17 sugar season in Maharashtra was marked by low availability of cane following two consecutive droughts. Factories could crush just 373.13 lakh tonnes (lt) of cane and produce 42 lt of sugar, the lowest since 2004-05. This time, there is no dearth of cane, with mills already crushing 525.21 lt and producing 55.68 lt of sugar as on January 22. They may end up crushing over 680 lt, resulting in sugar output rebounding to 72-73 lt.

But the current season has also witnessed a significant shortage of harvesting labourers, drawn mostly from Marathwada (especially Beed, Jalna and Osmanabad districts) and North Maharashtra (Nandurbar, Dhule and Jalgaon). The former belong mainly to the OBC (other backward class) Vanjari community, while the latter are predominantly Adivasi tribals. The regions from where they come are drought-prone. The income from harvesting of cane grown in the irrigated lands of western and southern Maharashtra is what sustains them.

While cane harvesting usually begins after Diwali, mills negotiate with muqaddams (contractors) for supply of labourers — an estimated 7-8 lakh of them are engaged during the season — well ahead of crushing. The muqaddams, many of whom are erstwhile labourers themselves, are paid a “booking amount” during June-July. That is when the mills would have made an assessment of their requirement based on the availability of cane. The booking cost, interestingly, depends on the vehicle that the labourers would use to transport the harvested cane from the field to the mill. Thus, booking a bullock cart that can accommodate two labourers — usually a husband-wife team — may cost Rs 50,000. It would be more, around Rs 90,000, for a tractor-trailer capable of bringing 6-8 labourer pairs. The bullock carts are usually owned by the labourers, while the tractor-trailer belongs to the muqaddam.

A mechanised sugarcane harvest at a field in Sangurdi village of Pune’s Khed taluka. (Photo: Daniel Stephen)

The above time-honoured arrangement has, however, taken a huge knock in the current season. Maharashtra mills are reporting an average 15-20 per cent drop in the normal supply of cane harvesting labourers, with some pegging it even higher. The Kisan Veer Satara cooperative reckons that only 3,000-4,000 labourers — out of the 7,000-8,000 necessary for the full-capacity running of its three mills — have joined duty this time.

Suryakant Patil, managing director of the Mohanrao Shinde cooperative sugar mill at Miraj in neighbouring Sangli district, estimates a shortfall of over 1,000 kamgars relative to his factory’s requirement of 5,000. “Our crushing capacity is 4,000 tonnes per day, whereas we are now doing only 3,200-3,600 tonnes. Even that we are managing by getting the existing cane harvesting labourers to work double shifts, as against a normal single 6-8 hour shift. But that will become difficult after February, when temperatures rise and doing two shifts gets difficult,” admits Patil.

The unprecedented labour shortfall is being attributed to two factors. The first is good monsoon rains (both southwest and northeast) in Marathwada and North Maharashtra, which has spurred local agricultural activity and reduced the incentive to seek seasonal migration work. “I had tied up with 15 bullock-cart labourer teams. Four of them returned the booking amount and decided to stay back to tend to their wheat and chana (chickpea) crops. There’s enough water for rabi plantings this time,” says Bharat Dongre, a muqaddam attached to the Sahyadri cooperative mill at Karad in Satara and who sources kamgars from Ahmednagar district’s Jamkhed taluka.

The second reason has to do with the migration of labour to Karnataka and Gujarat, where mills are learnt to be paying more. Maharashtra factories are currently giving Rs 198 for harvesting every tonne of cane to bullock-cart labour teams and Rs 228 per tonne to those working on tractor-trailers, with these adjusted against the initial booking amount. There is a separate 18.5 per cent commission for the muqaddam, payable on the harvesting charge. The muqaddam or tractor-trailer owner also charges (depending upon the distance) an average Rs 650 per tonne for taking the harvested cane to the mill. In case of transport by bullock cart, there is no payment in cash and the labourer only gets the green tops (leaves) that remain after the sugarcane is harvested. The cane tops, which are fed to his animals, are given free of cost.

“Gujarat and Karnataka mills are paying Rs 30-40 per tonne more. The current agreement (signed in 2014 between Maharashtra’s sugar industry and the Todni Vahatuk Sanghatana representing cane harvesting labourers) provides for just a 20 per cent rate increase over five years,” alleges D L Karad, president of the Maharashtra Sugarcane Cutting and Transport Workers Union. His union, affiliated to the CPM-backed Centre of Indian Trade Unions, has given a notice for termination of the existing agreement. “We have called for a strike in the next (2018-19) season demanding better pay,” he adds.

The threat from labour shortage is, nevertheless, turning into an opportunity for mechanised sugarcane harvester makers. The Kisan Veer Satara cooperative has, in the current season, deployed 15 such machines that would harvest roughly a tenth of the cane supplied to its Wai and Khandala mills. “We will add another 26 machines by the next season. These are either our own or procured by entrepreneurs/farmer groups against bank loans, for which we would provide collateral in the form of guaranteed work. Mechanisation is the only way out of labour troubles,” states Bhosale.

His enthusiasm isn’t shared, though, by others. Suryakant Patil notes that while his mill has invested in two mechanised harvesters, they are not being used. “These machines need large unbroken tracts of cane. In contrast, most of our cane holdings are small and fragmented,” he points out. But Bhosale feels this isn’t an insurmountable problem. “The equipment manufacturers have made changes to the machines to adapt them to our field conditions. We, in turn, have induced farmers to effect changes to their planting practices, such as maintaining a 4-4.5 feet distance between cane rows, as opposed to the prevalent 3-3.5 feet norm. It does not affect cane yields, even while allowing the machines to easily operate in the fields,” he explains.

All this is obviously music to the likes of New Holland Agriculture. The Italian agricultural machinery major, which assembles “Case IH” sugarcane harvesters at its facility in Chakan (Pune), has sold 270-plus machines in Maharashtra since 2010. The machinery owners are charging Rs 338-400 per tonne, more than the Rs 198-228 rate for manual harvesting. But the machines have the capacity to harvest 15-20 tonnes of cane per hour. That would translate into covering an acre in four hours’ time, which takes two days for a 6-8 labourer-pair team.

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