Home / Home-page / Bitter-sweet reality behind Rs15,000 crore cane windfall

Ahmednagar: Inside a dense sugar cane farm in Ahmednagar’s Nevasa village, over 350 km south-east of Mumbai, Sunita Shingte, with three expert swings of her machete, hacks a sugar-cane stalk that is almost three times as high as her under-five-foot frame.

Sunita cannot tell you her age. She could be 13.

She once was in school, and if you ask her, she can write her name in shaky, broken Marathi letters. But this frail slasher of cane stalks from south-central Maharashtra’s Beed district has not been inside a classroom for more than three years, ever since she began accompanying her parents on their annual five-month journey to work as cane cutters for the state’s sugar factories.

With her parents and younger brother, Sunita—she has never been inside a factory to see how sugar is made, but the names of sugar factories from Ahmednagar to Nashik, roll off her tongue easily—is part of an army of about 4.5-5 lakh migrants who march out of villages across arid Marathwada at the end of the year.

The ragged army has no choice. Agriculture here is fed only by rain, and there is no work beyond the monsoon. So it heads to sugar country, a large swathe of land, from the diamond town of Surat in southern Gujarat through western Maharashtra to Belgaum in northern Karnataka.

The cane cutters, from historically disadvantaged castes and tribes, will be on the road for an extra month this year.

“It is a bumper crop," said Rajagopal Devara, Maharashtra’s sugar commissioner. “Sugar factories are looking at a crushing season that will stretch for an additional month, till May-end."

Travel across India’s sugar country, and you will find the state’s 172 mills humming 24x7 as they churn out a third of the nation’s sugar. Across western Maharashtra’s sugarcane fields, the state’s largest crop ever—an estimated 81 lakh tonnes—is being harvested. It is hard work, and the mills outsource it to poor migrants like the Shingtes.

Looking after unorganized labourers such as the cane cutters was high on the agenda of the ruling United Progressive Alliance government, which set up the National Commission for Enterprises in the Unorganized Sector, a part-regulatory, part-supervisory body. A draft Unorganized Workers’ Social Security Bill, prepared by the commission, has been with the Prime Minister’s Office since May 2005. Now, the commission has put out a draft of yet another proposed law, the Unorganized Agricultural Sector Workers (Conditions of Work & Livelihood Promotion) Bill, and asked feedback from state governments and civil society agencies.

The National Rural Employment Guarantee Programme was meant to arrest migration by providing at least one member from rural households with 100 days of assured work post-monsoon, annually. In several villages from where cane-cutters migrate, the programme does not exist. There’s a big advantage to having an army of labourers working round-the-clock to feed Maharashtra’s 172 factories in these days of record harvests.

“Unlike other states, like say Uttar Pradesh, here cutters, not farmers, cut the cane ensuring it is at the factory and crushed within 24 hours," said Maharashtra State Sugar Co-operative Factories Federation managing director Prakash Naiknavare. “That ensures Maharashtra a higher recovery rate of sugar from the sugarcane—11.5% as opposed to the national average of 10%."

This year, sugar cooperatives are looking at a cumulative annual turnover of Rs15,000 crore, he said. That exceeds Mumbai’s annual Rs9,685 crore civic budget, and accounts for 4% of the state’s economy.

“Sugar cane, and sugar factories fit in well in the whole complex of Western Maharashtra’s cooperative politics," said Mumbai University economist Neeraj Hatekar, who has studied the crop’s political economy.

Two-thirds of the state’s sugar mills are controlled by politicians. Maharashtra’s sugar daddies span the political spectrum, from chief minister Vilasrao Deshmukh to leader of the opposition Gopinath Munde, said Hatekar.

The sugar cane economy also mirrors the classic dichotomy of modern India.

The state of the sugar cane cutters represents all the ills that plague the informal sector, which employs over 300 million Indians, or 90% of the country’s workforce.

Over five decades, things have not improved for the impoverished migrant army of cane-cutters.

A cramped enclosure of sugar cane stalks tied together, with no running water, and no power, is home to Sunita’s five-member family. Hundreds of migrant families live in a settlement that has come up on wasteland near Nevasa village, at the gates of the Mula Sugar Factory. The factory is run by Yashwantrao Gadakh-Patil, a Congress member of the state legislature, and a former member of Parliament.

Every winter, these large refugee-camp-like colonies, form outside the factory gates. Cutter couples, often accompanied by their older children, leave for the sugar cane fields before dawn and return by the end of the afternoon, to join a queue of cane-laden bullock carts at the factory gates.

During the day, the settlement’s only inhabitants are the aged and the very young. Smoke spires rise from the burning cow-dung cakes on which mostly underage girls cook family meals.

Like most girls in the colony, Sunita cuts cane, but is also assigned lesser work—cooking and cleaning, looking after the livestock, and bundling sugarcane tops to sell (Rs30 for 100 bundles of 20 stalks each) to villagers who use it as fodder. But the cutters’ problems run deeper than primitive living conditions.

The factories hire them, through an obscure, yet highly efficient, network of labour brokers, or mukadams, who thrive on the seasonal distress.

A lump sum is given by the factories in the monsoon to the family via mukadams. This must be paid back in kind, by working in the cane fields, in the harvest season. Whole families get sucked into the vortex.

“Migrants from Marathwada have no stake in the cooperative set-up, and sugar factories, despite being headed by politicians, are unwilling to incur any costs on them," said Hatekar. “So political parties will agitate for a better price for sugar cane—but never for the cutters’ basic rights."

This is Part 1 of a two-part series on how poor migrants fuel the profitable business of sugar in Maharashtra. Part 2 will appear tomorrow.

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