The Bitter Taste of Sugar

    • By, Prashant Rathod – Student, Kautilya

Maharashtra’s Vidarbha and Marathawada’s 1.5 million labourers cry whenever Diwali comes in. Not because of poverty or lack of money, but due to ‘fear of slavery’.

I recently visited my village, Singdoh, last Diwali. Usually, people return from the cities for Diwali, like me. But more than returners, the seasonal migrants of sugarcane labour bundle their life in a saree. And at a time when people must be celebrating a festival, my fellow villagers were crying because their family members were leaving for sugarcane cutting. It almost felt like the entire village was mourning. In order to understand this situation, we must take a look at the work condition and the slavery form of sugarcane, run by the state because the sugar mills are cooperative and come under the government.

This job is a trap of slavery – it requires a couple, hence the whole family migrates. Due to which, every year, 2 lakh children also go with their parents to Maharashtra.

The work –
In a Jodi, a male worker typically cuts through the stem of the cane and peels the leaves. On the other hand, the female worker is in charge of tying the bundles (40-45 kg) and placing these bundles into the truck. The loading is complicated for women, as they must climb the steps. Often in the dark, against the truck trolley.

Why do I call it slavery?
The internet will give you many defintions of slavery. But I feel those definitions are now merely a part of books despite the ILO declaration 1930, the UN’s 1948 human rights declaration, and the Constitution of India. Labourers live like a slave in this country. My concern is that although we have fundamental rights, these sugarcane labourers live a disrespectful and unacceptable life. Article 23, 24, and 21 A says Right against exploitation, child labour, and bonded labour. Despite these fundamental rights, India has a bonded labour (abolition) act 1976. DPSP in the constitution also talks about a living wage, equal pay for women and men, early child care, and education. Yet, if we see the living conditions, working conditions, and reality of the sugarcane labourers, all these fundamental rights seem to be violated, more so exploited. They do not have a house to live in, no electricity, no schools, lack of women protection, etc as opposed to those under any corporate or govt. schemes.

People say that no one forces them to take an advance, that if they do not wish to work, they could just return home. P.M. Bhagavti celebrated CJI’s PUDR vs. UOI 1982, BMM vs. UOI 1983 – “No one would willingly supply labour or his service under the minimum wage unless some compulsion doesn’t force them. This force can be hunger, poverty, destitution.” By his definition, hundreds of millions in India are bonded labour. Because the question arises who is getting minimum wage today? And are the wages really as minimum as per inflation? Their poverty provokes them to take that. A Jodi harvests approximately three tonnes of sugarcane per day, earning Rs. 200 to 250 per ton. Even though the region’s minimum daily salary for agricultural labour is Rs. 300, cane cutters must work 12 to 15 hours each day to earn this amount. Sugarcane workers at one point, used to receive an advance of Rs.30-50 thousand before work

They are not eligible for social security benefits such as provident funds or employee insurance, and even a half-day leave might result in wage deductions of Rs. 500 to 1,000. Workplace accidents and serious injuries are not commonplace. It is not only about sugarcane workers, the same practice exists in almost all corners of India -brick kiln, stone, carpet, tea, salt, oil, coal, every life-saving/basic commodity comes from the slavery system.

Nonetheless, having said all this, I realized that I took 6 hours to write this blog in an AC room, while in these 6 hours a Jodi cut 2 tons of sugarcane at a 35-degree temperature, with absolutely almost nothing in return.

Reference Links :

  1. Pune: Over 2 lakh children of migrant cane harvesters deprived of mid-day meals for months
  2. How sugarcane cutting has turned into a curse for people of Beed

*The Kautilya School of Public Policy (KSPP) takes no institutional positions. The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author(s) and do not reflect the views or positions of KSPP.