Machines that Mow down Migrants

The arrival of imported cane-harvesting machines in sugarcane fields may push migrant cane cutters deeper in bondage.


“This town rips the bones from your back
Its a death trap, its a suicide rap
We gotta get out while we’re young
‘Cause tramps like us, baby, we were born to run.”

— Bruce Springsteen, Born to Run.

Bleary-eyed, Shivaji Randale wakes up in the biting cold at 3 a.m. and makes his way to the sugarcane fields in Baramati along with his toli (group of around 10 workers). He has been able to snatch only two hours of sleep. But sleep doesn’t matter when there’s a loan to be worked off.

By afternoon, he loads his bullock cart with the cane his family has cut, and leaves for the crushing factory. There, he waits in queue until late at night, or even the next day. Yet, after labouring round the clock, Shivaji may not be able to work off the advance he has taken from the contractor. Before leaving their village in Beed district, around 200 km away, his family was given Rs 20,000 by the contractor, which is offset against the amount of sugarcane they cut. Like most migrant workers who travel to western Maharashtra’s sugarcane belt for work from the dry Marathwada region, Shivaji may return to his village with a debt to repay. “If, at the end of the season, we haven’t cut enough cane to offset the advance given to us, we have to pay back the rest. The rate of interest on this loan is 60 per cent per year,” he says.

Recently, the sugar mills have made it even more difficult for migrant workers like Shivaji to shake off their bondage. Ever since the sugar co-operatives imported cane-harvesting machines last year, not only have the number of workers reduced but their working days have also dwindled. “This season, we’ve got work for only 20 days in the month. How are we supposed to pay back the contractor? We’ve travelled so far to work — not to sit here, twiddling our thumbs,” says Shivaji, who cuts cane for the Shri Chattrapati factory in Sharad Pawar’s constituency, Baramati. This factory, along with Malegaon co-operative in the same region, is among the first to use the harvesting machines. Twelve co-operative factories have decided to purchase 25 cane-cutting machines so far.
A family harvesting cane at a field in Kolhapur.Photo: Dionne Bunsha
Sharad Pawar, who controls Maharashtra’s co-operative sugar factory syndicate, has shown a special interest in importing the machines from Germany and Australia, each costing around Rs 1.20 crores. He has even asked the central government to waive the 32 per cent import duty on the machines. Pawar and Maharashtra’s sugar barons, many of whom are Congress (I) and Nationalist Congress Party ministers, have built their fortunes on the labour of more than a million penniless migrant workers, who travel to their factories every harvesting season to cut cane. But now, the sugar lobby plans to replace these labourers with harvesting machines, each of which makes 300 to 400 workers unemployed. As the machines mow down the livelihoods of these migrants, they are also pushing them deeper into debt.

Workdays have reduced in the factories using harvesting machines. Also, workers transporting cane to the factory on bullock carts have to wait longer in queue, for upto 36 hours, as priority is given to the cane cut by the machine. When the machines were first introduced at the Shri Chattrapati factory in January 2001, some workers, frustrated with the long delay, spontaneously held an agitation into the factory. Many were arrested and work in the factory was disrupted.

This wasn’t the first time that labourers fought back. The powerful sugar magnates have effectively squelched many strikes demanding better pay and working conditions. Conditions of work haven’t improved for decades. Every year, after celebrating Divali, the festival of prosperity, groups of workers, leave their villages knowing they will never find it. The migrants, with their cattle and meagre belongings, are herded into trucks and taken from the arid Marathwada region to the lush sugarcane belt of western Maharashtra. In the north, workers from Nandurbar and Dhule travel to Gujarat’s sugar factories. Similarly, many workers from Karnataka cross the border into Kolhapur’s sugar fields to work.
Migrant sugarcane cutters at one of their makeshift huts.Photo: Dionne Bunsha
Entire villages are transported – including barbers, shopkeepers and cobblers. Only the elderly and a few children, whose parents prefer to keep them at school, are left behind. But the education of most children is disrupted. “Which school is going to take them? They spend six months here and the rest in the village. Even our children don’t have a way out of this kind of work,” says Sultana Hanif from Parbhani, whose three daughters are with her. There are only 30 schools for migrant children in the state’s 198 sugar factories.

The workers are of two types – bullock cart and tractor workers. While bullock cart workers cut the cane as well as transport it to the factory on their carts, the tractor workers move from village to village harvesting the cane and loading it on the tractors. For both categories, working hours blur from one day to the next. Bullock cart workers wait till dawn outside the factory in the most miserable conditions. “Just look at the state of this yard. We have to sit in the middle of this cow dung all night. They don’t even clean the place or provide basic facilities like water, a shed or even proper pathways for the bullocks,” says Ganpati Shankar Kumbar, a worker from Karnataka who has crossed the border to Kagal in Kolhapur. Tractor workers are hauled up at any time in the night to load the tractor with cane. Bonfires are the only source of light and warmth as they work at odd hours in the night.

For these vagabond workers, there’s barely any shelter. Those with bullocks build straw huts on the outskirts of villages, with no electricity or sanitation facilities. Tractor workers pitch tents, which they shift every two or three weeks, as they move to another village for work. Some have no place to live. Like Ganpati Kumbar, who snatches a nap under his bullock cart, while waiting in queue. “What hut? This is my home,” he says, pointing to his cart.
The harvester at work in a sugarcane field in BaramatiPhoto: Dionne Bunsha
What makes them leave their homes to endure these harsh working conditions? Why do they come here, uprooting their families and disrupting their children’s education? “There’s no water in our fields. If the government irrigated our land, we wouldn’t have to come here,” says Janabai Marade from Beed, whose family owns 12 acres of land. “During a good monsoon can we grow some jowar or groundnut. After that, there is nothing. Barely a few days of agricultural work, which pays a pittance of Rs 20 per day for women,” she says. The agricultural crisis in the countryside has made agriculture unviable for several farmers like her. Agricultural growth (in terms of production and income) decelerated in the ‘90s. Investment in rural infrastructure like irrigation has dropped. The removal of subsidies has increased input prices, while produce prices have fallen after liberalisation. Farmers’ profitability has taken a tumble, sharpening indebtedness.

Trapped in a cycle of loans, workers keep coming back to the sugar factories every year. The need of a lumpsum advance for consumption, to marry their children or pay medical bills, makes workers approach the contractor. Families repay the advances by cutting between one to two tonnes of cane per day, at the rate of around Rs 100-115 per tonne for bullock cart owners and Rs 65 per tonne for tractor workers. Bullock cart workers are paid advances between Rs 15,000 to Rs 25,000 per family, while tractor workers’ families are given Rs 10,000 to Rs 15,000. Often, workers are given less, as their unpaid loans are offset against this advance.

In fact, Uttam Siserao, a landless labourer from Parbhani, is working for free this season. While waiting for work in a shed outside the Dutta sugar cooperative factory in Kolhapur for three days, he explains, “My wife was ill last year, and could not work. We had taken Rs 10,000 from the contractor. I worked off Rs 5,000 and the other half was due. After that, she passed away. This year, I am repaying her advance.” Most workers use up their advances in the village itself, and buy their daily rations by selling the sugarcane leaves as fodder for Rs 20-25. “We leave with nothing and also return home empty-handed. The advance we took was used up before we got here. When we return to the village, its back to borrowing and agricultural work,” says Sarubai Auchar who has migrated from Parbhani to Kolhapur.

It’s not surprising that these migrants work under the most insecure conditions with minimal legal protection. Their employers also run the government. Moreover, since workers are scattered in different places, they aren’t a strong vote bank. “Sugar is the most organised industry, but this sector has the most unorganised workers,” says Kumar Shiralkar, leader of the Sugarcane Transporters and Workers Union.

Although the factory pays their advances through the contractor, it refuses to acknowledge them as workers. “They should be given the same benefits and status as those working inside the sugar factory,” says Shiralkar. No labour laws are implemented to protect their rights although some like the Minimum Wages Act, Contract Labour Act , Moneylending Act and Workmens Compensation Act are applicable.
Cane cutters at a farm loading a truckPhoto: Dionne Bunsha
Considering the distinct nature of their work, the union is demanding the setting up of a mathadi board where every worker can register and which will regulate their working conditions. However, the sugar syndicate is against this idea. “Since our factories work for only six months in a year, we would like to keep the relationship with workers contractual. Anyway, the whole labour issue will die in the course of time as harvesting machines come in. If all factories get the machines, will save us Rs 691 million every year – Rs 12 per tonne of cane,” says Prakash Naiknavare, managing director of the Maharashtra Co-op Sugar Factories Federation. At present, the wages are revised every three years by the sugar cartel.

Although India is the world’s largest producer of sugar and the industry is growing at 8.5 per cent every year, this booming industry does not even provide its workers with basic facilities or share the profits with the workers. Almost all Maharashtra’s 192 sugar co-operatives were the platform on which Congress ministers built their fiefdoms. The BJP is also trying to get in on the act by setting up private sugar factories.

Local farmers and economies in western Maharashtra benefited from the infrastructure development that accompanied the establishment of a factory. For instance, although sugarcane constitutes only three per cent of the area under cultivation in Maharashtra, it corners 60 per cent of the state’s irrigation. Districts in Marathwada, where the migrants come from, have irrigation cover as low as six per cent. On the whole Maharashtra’s has a low irrigation cover of 15 per cent, way below the national average of 38 per cent. But irrigation facilities for sugarcane are abundant . Patronage politics and vote banks developed in the sugarcane belt. But, the migrants aren’t a vote bank. So its convenient to keep them tied to the contractors for generations. “Politicians have risen by climbing on the backs of these bonded workers,” says Shiralkar.

Krishna Pawar, a worker who has migrated within Kolhapur district puts it eloquently, “We cut the cane, but we don’t get to taste any sugar, not even a pinch.”

Frontline, Feb 02 – 15, 2002 Also available here

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