Every year before Dussehra, a mukadam (contractor) shows up in Maharashtra’s drought-hit Beed district, where Durga (name changed to protect privacy), 34, and her family of four live. He offers them a loan of about ₹1 lakh, thereby ‘booking’ the couple into a contract that will lock them for the next several months. The loan will be repaid — deducted from wages — along with a 5% interest.
After Deepavali, Ms. Durga’s family, including her three children, will bundle up their sparse belongings, round up their goats, and board a tractor trailer to head to Kolhapur, within the State, to cut sugarcane. Every year, the family hopes its fortune will change. They’ve been doing this ever since she got married at 17 or 18.
For decades now, about 12 lakh to 15 lakh people migrate within the State, from dry Marathwada, to western Maharashtra’s Sangli, Kolhapur, Pune, Satara, Solapur, and Ahmednagar — also known as the sugar belt. About 80,000 workers come from parts of Madhya Pradesh too.
They work in the sugarcane fields every year, ending the season in March with no more than ₹50,000 to ₹60,000 for about 150 days of work. They will use this money over the next six or seven months, until Dussehra.
About 70% of 500-odd villages in Beed, Osmanabad, Jalna, Latur, and some parts of Nanded and Parbhani districts are emptied every winter, with everyone from the local kirana (provisions) store to the barber moving. Just the elderly are left behind.
The mukadam is a man with political influence. The more powerful he is, the more sub-contractors he has. Once farmers (who own the land) ready the sugarcane for harvest, mukadams take over. Sugar factories hire them, and they in turn hire labour, making arrangements for their transport and stay. Mukadams also tie up with tractor owners to transfer the cane from farm to factory. These middlemen are paid by the sugar factory and pocket at least 30% of what is earned.
The price of table sugar is paid by this hidden workforce, much like it was in 17th century America, with sugarcane ushering in the slave trade, and much of Europe built on its profit.
A day in the life…
The tolis, groups of workers, either stay on the sugar factory premises or in the sugarcane fields. Families move into temporary structures that provide little shelter as winter turns to summer and then the rains arrive, flooding their makeshift homes. The children do not go to school, and help their parents bundle the cane.
“We come to Kolhapur in the hope that our lives will change financially. But every year, our woes grow, with low wages, harassment by contractors, and the lack of basic facilities, including toilets. There is no sign of improvement,” cries Ms. Durga, sitting under a tarpaulin sheet supported by a few bamboo poles — her six-foot-long ‘house’ for the season. Cows and goats are tethered close by. If they’re left behind, they’ll have nothing to eat and no one to look after them.
After 12 to 13 hours of continuous work, Ms. Durga and her husband will get ₹400 to ₹500 together daily. In a country that is debating whether women should get menstrual leave, there are no welfare benefits here — not even medical assistance or paid days off for pregnant women. If someone dies, no one takes responsibility, and there is no compensation.
India is today the world’s top producer and consumer of sugar, and the second largest exporter, as per government data. Shekhar Gaikwad, Maharashtra’s Sugar Commissioner, says the State produces the most sugar in the country.
Women start their day at 3.30 a.m., an hour before the men. After they relieve themselves in the open fields and bathe in open bathrooms, they cook the day’s food on open chulhas (mud stoves). They collect firewood and fetch water from a couple of kilometres away. “Getting water is a task,” says one woman.
By 6 a.m., sickles in hand, they are on the vast sugarcane fields that stretch from 8 to 100 acres. If they fall ill halfway — there is no room for exhaustion — their mukadam will verbally abuse and charge them a khada (fine), which will be deducted from the advance payment.
Devappa Anna Shetti alias Raju Shetti, from Kolhapur, is a farmers’ rights activist, former MP and president of Swabhimani Paksha, a regional political party. He says that women are exploited sexually by contractors, sub-contractors, tractor drivers, even co-workers. “Fearing loss of employment, which would further push them into financial trouble, the women won’t come out, so these incidents go unreported,” he says. “Sexual exploitation has become a common phenomenon. Over the past 25 years, I have come across several such cases, but the victims don’t want to approach the police,” he says.
Mirabai from Osmanabad district, working in a sugarcane field near Kapashi in Kolhapur, is one of the few women willing to speak about this. She remembers an incident from about six or seven years ago, when one of her co-workers was repeatedly raped by the contractor in Satara. “She was helpless, but her husband did not ask her or the contractor about it,” Mr. Shetti says.
That’s not the only problem women face. One woman in her early 30s says she had a hysterectomy a few years ago. “I underwent the surgery to prevent income loss due to menstruation,” she explains. When a woman misses work, she is fined between ₹500 and ₹1,000 per day. “I can’t miss work three or four days in a month, so like many others from Beed district, I too underwent the surgery,” she says.
On January 17 this year, the National Human Rights Commission took suo motu cognisance of a media report on the plight of women labourers engaged in cutting sugarcane for factories at Shrigonda tehsil in Ahmednagar district. At least 10% of them are pregnant but unaware of their lawful rights and the benefits ensured under various government schemes. The commission observed that the contents of the news report, if true, raise serious issues of human rights violations. It has issued a notice to the Chief Secretary of Maharashtra calling for a detailed report.
Zooming in and out
Maharashtra government officials say that this year, 202 sugar factories, including 102 cooperative factories, are in operation in the State and there is a 10% crop decline due to unseasonal rain in September and October 2022. Of the 202 factories, 141 are in western Maharashtra — 49 in Solapur, 35 in Kolhapur and Sangli, 31 in Pune region, and 26 in Ahmednagar. Of the remaining, 29 are in Nanded, 25 in Aurangabad, four in Nagpur, and three in Amravati. Each factory indirectly employs about 8,000 workers to cut sugarcane.
“There is no doubt that the workers are being exploited by the mukadams. They harass the workers and pay them very little. The working and living conditions violate basic human rights,” says Mr. Shetti. He says one pair of labourers harvests at least two tonnes of sugarcane per day. If the quantity is less than what was expected or the tractor is not loaded, the labour contractor cuts wages to ₹300 or ₹350 per pair. “Their wages are inhuman. The government should take up this issue seriously. It should also make sure they are provided with basic facilities like proper shelter, toilets, health care and, most importantly, schools for the children,” Mr. Shetti says.
Located at Kagal, a 30-minute drive from Kolhapur, Shree Chhatrapati Shahu Cooperative Sugar Factory Limited is one of the largest sugar industries in the region. The labourers stay on the open ground next to the factory and are given basic materials like bamboo and tarpaulin sheets to set up huts. There are a few portable toilets and a school for the children.
Smitha Mahadev Navade from Sakshal Pimpri in Beed, the district from which four to five lakh workers migrate each year, is making rotis for her family. In her 50s, she is very far, both in body and mind, from Parliament, where raising the age of marriage for women to 21 is under consideration. Ms. Navade was married at 14 or 15.
“I’ve been coming since I got married. My parents never did this work. They had agricultural land. Since my husband has no land, we are forced to work in sugarcane fields. It’s extremely intense and risky with little payment,” she laments, adding that sickle injury and sunstroke is common, and snakebites happen too.
Her toli harvests five to six tonnes of sugarcane each day and is paid only ₹400 to ₹500 per pair, she says. The campsite, which has more than 500 huts, has kirana stores, small restaurants, and a barbershop. However, there is no electricity, which makes life difficult.
A short distance away, Sadashiv Sadu Khavle and his wife, Kamal, are busy harvesting the cane to be supplied to the factory. The couple from Giralgaon in Osmanabad has been coming here for a few years now. This year, they are sub-contractors, with workers under them. “Employing people didn’t change our fate,” says Mr. Khavle, silently supervising the work.
Sugar companies are aware of the exploitation. “Yes, we know that they are harassed and exploited by the mukadam. We have around 800 workers on the payroll. Employing all migrant labour can lead to huge financial loss to the factories,” says a senior officer at a cooperative sugar factory in the district. Cooperatives are mostly controlled by political heavyweights in the State.
Mr. Shetti says that last year over 13.20 crore metric tonnes of sugarcane was harvested by nearly 12.5 lakh labourers. “An average of ₹324 per tonne was paid to the contractors. The total amount for the season comes to more than ₹4,000 crore. Of this, over ₹800 crore was the commission earned by the contractors,” he says.
“When such a huge amount is involved, the Central government should constitute a committee for the welfare of these workers. The government should give employment to at least 80% of these workers under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act,” the farmers’ rights activist says, unrealistically.
Despite everything, the workers see this seasonal life as an opportunity. “We have neither work nor water back home. There’s no income or opportunity there,” says Shankar Ranganath Kuchekar from Barkheda in Beed. “Here at least, we earn something, however meagre.”