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Crushed labour

Print edition : Feb 02, 2002 T+T-

Already trapped in a cycle of debt, migrant workers who depend on Maharashtra's sugarcane belt for their livelihood face the threat of being replaced by imported harvesters.

DIONNE BUNSHA in Kolhapur and Baramati

This town rips the bones from your back It's a death trap, it's 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, along with his toli (group of around 10 workers), to the sugarcane fields in Baramati in Maharashtra's Pune district. He has been able to snatch only two hours of sleep. But sleep does not matter when there is 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. For some others, the wait could last till 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 set off against the quantity of sugarcane they cut. Like most migrant workers who travel from the dry Marathwada region to western Maharashtra's sugarcane belt in search of work, Shivaji may return to his village with a debt to repay. "If, at the end of the season, we have not cut enough cane to set off the advance given to us, we have to pay back the rest of the money. The rate of interest on this loan is 60 per cent a year," he says. (Workers from Nandurbar and Dhule in northern Marathwada travel to Gujarat's sugar factories. Similarly, many workers from Karnataka cross the border into Kolhapur's sugar fields.)

The sugar mills have made it even more difficult for the migrant workers to shake off their bondage. Ever since the sugar cooperatives began using imported cane harvesting machines in 2001, the number of not only the workers but also their working days have dwindled. "This season, we've got work for only 20 days in a month. How are we supposed to pay back the contractor? We've travelled this far to work - not to sit here, twiddling our thumbs," says Shivaji, who cuts cane for the Shri Chattrapati factory in Nationalist Congress Party leader Sharad Pawar's parliamentary constituency, Baramati. This factory, and the Malegaon cooperative in the same region, are among the first to use the cane harvesting machines. So far, 12 cooperative factories have decided to purchase altogether 25 cane cutting machines.

Political bosses, who effectively control Maharashtra's cooperative sugar factory syndicate have taken a special interest in importing the machines, each costing around Rs.1.2 crores, from Germany and Australia. They have even urged the Central government to waive the 32 per cent import duty on the machines. Maharashtra's sugar barons, many of whom are Congress(I) or NCP Ministers, have built their fortunes on the labour of more than a million migrant workers. But now, the sugar lobby is gradually replacing the labourers with these harvesting machines, each of which can deprive 300 to 400 workers of their source of livelihood, thereby pushing them deeper into debt. (Each machine can cut 300 to 400 tonnes a day.)

Also, workers transporting cane to the factory on bullock carts have to wait, for up to 36 hours, as priority is given to 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, held an agitation spontaneously at the factory. Several of them were arrested and work in the factory was disrupted.

This was not the first time that the labourers had fought back. Several strikes demanding better pay and working conditions have been squelched by the powerful sugar magnates. Conditions of work have not improved for decades. Every year after celebrating Deepavali, groups of workers leave their villages knowing that they may not find work. The migrants, with their cattle and meagre belongings, are herded into trucks and taken from the arid Marathwada region to the lush sugarcane belt. The inhabitants of entire villages are transported. They include 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 around the State's 198 sugar factories.

The workers are of two types - the ones who use bullock carts and the ones who use tractors to move from village to village to transport the cane. For both categories, the working hours blur from one day to the next. The workers using bullock carts often wait until dawn outside the factory in miserable conditions. "Look at the state of this yard. We have to sit amidst cowdung 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 come to Kagal in Kolhapur. The tractor-borne workers are hauled up at any time of the night to load the tractor. Bonfires are the only source of light and warmth as they work at night.

For these workers, there is barely any shelter. Those with bullocks build straw huts on the outskirts of villages. The tractor-borne workers pitch tents, which they shift every two or three weeks, as they move to another village. 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.

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 (4.86 hectares) of land. "During a good monsoon we can grow some jowar or groundnut. After that, there is nothing. Barely a few days of agricultural work, which pays a pittance of Rs.20 a day for women," she says. The farming crisis has made agriculture unviable for several farmers like her. Agricultural growth (in terms of production and income) decelerated in the 1990s. Investment in rural infrastructure, including in irrigation, has dropped. The removal of subsidies has increased input prices, while produce prices have fallen in the wake of 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 for a lumpsum advance for consumption expenditure, to get their children married or pay medical bills, makes the workers approach the contractor. Families repay in labour by cutting between one and two tonnes of cane a day, at the rate of Rs.100 to Rs.115 a tonne for bullock cart-borne workers and Rs.65 a tonne for tractor-borne workers. The bullock cart-borne workers are paid advances between Rs.15,000 and Rs.25,000 a family, while the tractor-borne workers' families are given up to Rs.15,000.

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 the third day, 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 the advance she had taken." Most workers use up the pay advanced in the village itself, and then buy their daily food requirements by selling the sugarcane leaves as cattle fodder for Rs.20 to Rs.25 a bundle. "We leave home with nothing and return home empty-handed. When we return to the village, it's back to borrowing and agricultural work," says Sarubai Auchar, who has also migrated from Parbhani.

It is 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 do not constitute 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 such as the Minimum Wages Act, the Contract Labour (Regulation and Abolition) Act and the Workmen's Compensation Act are applicable.

Considering the distinctive nature of their work, the union is demanding the setting up of a mathadi board with which every worker can register and which will regulate their working conditions. However, the sugar syndicate seems to be against this idea. 'Since our factories work for only six months in a year, we would like to keep a contractual relationship with the workers. Anyway, the whole labour issue will die in the course of time as harvesting machines come in. If all the factories buy the machines, we will save up to Rs.691 million every year - Rs.12 a tonne of cane," says Prakash Naiknavare, managing director of the Maharashtra Cooperative Sugar Factories Federation. At present, the sugar cartel revises the wages every three years.

Although India is the world's largest producer of sugar and the industry is growing at the rate of 8.5 per cent a year, the industry neither provides its workers with basic facilities nor shares profits with them. The 192 sugar cooperatives provided the platform on which many Congress and NCP Ministers could build their fiefdoms. The Bharatiya Janata Party is also now apparently trying to get into the act by indirectly sponsoring the setting up of private sugar factories.

Local farmers and economies in western Maharashtra benefited from the infrastructure development that accompanied the establishment of factories. For instance, although sugarcane constitutes only 3 per cent of the total area under cultivation in the State, the water-intensive crop corners 60 per cent of the State's irrigation supply. The Marathwada district, from where the workers migrate, have an irrigation cover as low as 6 per cent. On the whole, Maharashtra 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 have developed in the sugarcane belt. But the migrants themselves do not constitute a vote bank. So it is convenient to keep them tied to the contractors generation after generation. "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 do not get to taste sugar, not even a pinch."

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