Sugarcane Cutters in Marathwada

By Shirish Khare
As the train heads to Mumbai from Marathwada, the air resonates with the ever-so-familiar poem from school, ‘Shikari aata hai, jaal failata hai. Daane ka lobh dikhata hai, lekin hamein jaal mein naïf fasna chahiye. The poem takes on a new meaning in Marathwada though: there are tales galore of the predator and prey here.

According to Government statistics, sugarcane production here in Marathwada is very high but the exploitation is even more pervasive which, unfortunately, remains unaccounted for.In the morning, we are caught by the sight of a tractor carrying about a dozen sugarcane cutters and their families. They carry with them their entire world: food, clothes and other bare essentials for survival. Children lie asleep on their mothers’ laps or sisters’ shoulders, huddled together with the cattle. When I asked them where they were going, one of the women said, “Very far….to Karnataka…..Bidar factory”. I asked them when they would return and they replied, “Not until the rains”.

This is Marathwada in Maharashtra. Many such tractors ply on the roads connecting the villages here to the cities. Most villages in Kalamb Tehsil, about 100 kms away from Usmanabad lie dreary and deserted.

Vinayak Taur, an educated dalit youth from the nearby Massa village told us, “Thousands of labourers leave their homes here every year between Diwali and the monsoons to work as sugarcane cutters for the sugar factories. Most of them belong to Dalit, Banjara and Pardi communities. They neither have any land they can call their own nor any other source of livelihood. Living on the outskirts of the villages here, they remain untouched by Gram Panchayat schemes and plans. School-going children here, as children anywhere else always, are the worst hit. The sugarcane farms they work in are replete with tales of exploitation.

This area in Marathwada is known particularly for sugar production. Terna sugar factory, the first ever factory here came into being at Dhonka in Usmanabad in 1982. Government statistics put the number of sugar factories here to 30 out of which 7 are in Usmanabad district alone of which, again, 4 are in Kalamb Tehsil. A member of the Terna Sugar Factory Committee, on condition of anonymity, revealed, “Every factory here needs sugarcane worth 25-50 kms worth of land which is taken care of by supervisors. The supervisor signs a deal with the Committee for Rs. 5-10 lakh in exchange of which he assures work to 12-20 labourer pairs for 6 – 10 months.”

A social worker working in that area, Bajrang Tate informed us, “Supervisors belong to the upper castes here. They persuade labourers and their wives to work for 6 to 10 months for a measly Rs. 25-30,000. They make a legal agreement with the labourers – sometimes for factories in far off areas. Under these agreements, labourers from here go to work in areas as far as Pune, Kolhapur in Maharashtra and Bidar, Alumathi and Bedgaon in Karnataka while labourers from these areas come here to work.” Balaji Mulay of Kalamb told us, “The supervisors do not get much time to gather labourers for work available in these factories. So they make sure they use their labour to the fullest without any compromise. Maya Shinde of neighbouring Dorala village narrates, “Bharat Sontake had no idea he would be inflicted by TB soon after signing a deal for work in Kolhapur for 6 months for Rs. 20,000 with one of the supervisors. The supervisor, after hearing of Bharat’s disease, forced Bharat’s entire family – his wife, ageing parents and young daughters - to work to compensate for his absence.”

We noticed a cluster of huts around the factories there - make shift homes for the labourers for 15-20 days of work in these factories. The labourers will be broken up into smaller groups and sent to their respective factories for work. We visited one such Basti near Dharashiv sugar factory in Khedki village. The Basti is made up all of 12 huts – rickety structures barely standing on sticks and rags. The huts have just one room for the whole family which just about enough space to stretch one’s legs. Children and women have to walk miles to for water and electricity and basic sanitation here, remain a distant dream in these Bastis.

At the break of dawn, labourers leave home with little more than a scythe made specially to cut sugarcane. Labourers work on the sugarcane farms in pairs: one cuts sugarcane and the other gathers it in a bunch. A pair usually cuts about 2 tonne of sugarcane everyday which is then transported to sugar factories. Trucks carry sugarcane to the factories well into the night. Many a time children along with their parents work as labourers on these farms as well. Many children cook and clean at home while their parents toil on the farms. Ishara Gore, one of many such child labourers here, told us she studied in the third standard and would be going to the fourth when she returned to her village. Little did she know that her school exams would be over by the time she returned. Her family has migrated to Karat village in Sagli district for work. Her father, Yavik Gore told us, “It’s good if she studies, otherwise we will have to get her married in the next 5 years anyway. Then she will work with her husband like us.” Child marriage is a common practice here. Marriage often takes place among labourers’ families so as to increase the number of labourers within the family and hence the family income. Migration in this case, perpetuates a malice like child marriage.

Shobhayani Kasbe, who works at the neighbouring Shambhu Maharaj sugar factory, voices her concerns about her children, “Our children work when they should be playing and studying. Sometimes, they seem very irritable while sometimes they recoil into a shell and become very quiet.” When we asked them why they didn’t take them back home sometimes, Mudrika Gore replied, “We are not allowed to go back home before the contract ends except during elections. We are taken back only to cast our vote during elections and brought back here soon after that.” They all had stories of gross exploitation to tell: stories of being overworked and underpaid and stories of being battered mercilessly by the supervisors if they even so much as dared to raise their voice. Shivaji Waghmare of Wabhal village narrates one of many such stories, “Last year saw very good production of sugarcane for which the labourers had to pay a price. They were forced to work even after their contract had ended. When some labourers protested, they, along with their wives and children, were beaten up ruthlessly.

The Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme the Maharashtra government runs here is more of a farce than anything else. We visited the Vikaskhand Kalamb office to uncover the truth behind this government scheme and were appalled by what we discovered. Basant Waghmare, the Development Officer of the Panchayat department told us, “It’s been a year since the scheme has been implemented but there are employment opportunities only in 7 out of the 89 villages in this block. With over 50,000 labourers in this block, only 2500 have got jobs under this scheme. And of even those who have managed to get jobs, many are yet to be paid. They will be paid only after we receive a grant of Rs. 5, 00,000 from the district authorities.” He added, “This scheme is mired in red tapism. That’s why it remains defunct at the implementation level.” But social activist Bajrang Tate unravels the other side of the story quite contrary to what meets the eye. He says,” Gram Panchayats here are dominated by the land – owning upper castes. They need labourers to work on their land. Labourers are kept in the dark about the government employment scheme just so they continue to work in farms under oppressive conditions. This way, the status quo remains undisturbed and the power equation unperturbed.”

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