Sugar mills have employed an all-time high of 808 mechanical harvesters to harvest cane in the 2020-21 crushing season. This season, Maharashtra is set to see an average of 14 per cent out of 873 lakh tonne (lt) cane being harvested by mechanical harvesters, which would be another record for the state.
Mills have moved on to mechanised harvesters due to problems associated with manual harvesters in the last few years. The state government had started a subsidy scheme for the purchase of these machines. Mills encouraged many farmer self-help groups to invest in these machines.
While the number of harvesters has only increased every season, technical difficulties caused mills to think twice before including these machines in their harvesting plan. Extremely common in Brazil and other advanced sugar producing countries, small landholdings have been a major constraint for their mass adoption in the state. Equipment manufacturers claimed that they have to make necessary modifications to help massive machines adapt to Indian conditions. These machines can harvest around an acre of cane field in four hours, which normally takes two days for manual harvesters.
This season, 808 machines will be operational in the state with Solapur mills contracting the highest number of such machines. Out of 808 machines in the state, Solapur alone has pressed into service 216 machines. Kolhapur and Pune have reported 182 and 176 machines, respectively, while Ahmednagar has reported 107. It is expected that out of 873 lt of cane, 115 lt will be harvested by the machines.
Traditionally, cane is harvested by seasonal migrant labourers. At the start of the season, close to 10 lakh labourers migrate to different sugar mills to harvest and transport cane. Working through a mostly informal but well-oiled mechanism, with mills employing them on contract through mukkadam (overseers), these labourers are paid per tonne of cane harvested. Over the years, their numbers are going down as the younger generation has opted for other professions.
Dharmaraj Kadadi, chairperson of Solapur-based Sidheshwar Cooperative sugar mill, said instead of the usual four to five harvesters, which his mill would hire this season, 10 such machines have been brought in. “The area of cane is increasing and there is intense competition among mills to harvest on time and, thus, these machines are becoming increasingly common,” he said.
He, however, complained of a recovery loss for the mill as, along with the sucrose part, the green tops also get harvested. “Thus, this would translate into lower recovery for us,” he added.
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