The Bitter Taste of Sugar

sugar cutters

’My mother was married off when she was 9 -10 years old. I was married off when I was 13 or so. I had to marry my daughter off when she was 15 or 16’, says Kusum (name changed). Kusum is a sugarcane cutter from Beed, who has to migrate every year from her drought-prone village in Marathwada to the lush sugarcane fields in Western Maharashtra. Kusum’s mother was a sugarcane cutter too and so is Kusum’s daughter. ’This is the third generation in our family who are forced to live this life’, she adds.

Kusum, a cane-cutter, was speaking at a Maharashtra state-level convention titled ’Ardha koyta: the plight of women cane-cutters’ that was held on the 23rd of September 2020. The convention was co-organised by Mahila Kisaan Adhikar Manch (MAKAAM), Jagnyachya Hakkache Aandolan (JHA) and Jan Aarogya Abhiyan (JAA).

Women’s role in the sugar industry

Sugarcane cutters together with sugarcane growers form the backbone of the sugar industry in Maharashtra, one of the leading sugarcane growing states in the country. It is estimated that there are about 8-10lakh sugarcane harvesters in Maharashtra. While the sugar industry is enmeshed in capitalist relations and follows that logic, the manner in which sugarcane cutting as an occupation is organized seems to deny women workers even their identity as workers. The work of sugarcane cutting is undertaken by groups of people, mostly comprising of couples – husband and wife pairs. The couple is known as the Koyta (sickle in the Marathi language, the instrument they use to cut the sugarcane) and usually, the husband and wife are expected to perform all the tasks together- such as harvesting, loading, unloading and transporting to the factory. Even as late as the year 2020, despite this hard, arduous, back-breaking work for 15 – 18 hours or more, the women workers are not registered separately and individually as workers; nor are they paid their own wages. The wages of the women are clubbed with their men and go to the men.

Sugarcane cutting involves heavy work and the workday is usually about 12-14 hours, sometimes more, with no weekly off. Women have to additionally work for 4-5 hours to fetch water, cooking, cleaning and taking care of the children often at the cost of their own health. They have to work each and every day, without a break, even if they are ill. Says Sunita (name changed), `If we are ill and cannot go for work, we have to pay a fine of Rs. 500/-, while our daily wages barely add up to Rs.100/-.’

This system of the koyta, the man-woman pair migrating for work is of great convenience to the employers and the industry, as the employers do not have to bother about or take responsibility for the day-to-day reproduction of the workers. Women’s traditional role of care work, of cooking, fetching water, cleaning etc. is taken care of by the unpaid work of the women. It is completely free, gratis!

The contractor or the mukadam engages the cane-cutters for a few months and pays the wages as an advance (Rs. 50,000-60,000 per season), which entices the vulnerable and often debt-ridden labourers to opt for this work over MNREGA or other work if available locally. Besides, persistent drought and the deepening agrarian crisis have meant non-availability of work forcing people to migrate. However, this advance actually acts like bondage and often the workers are not able to repay it and have to agree to come back to work the next year. The advance is also used to force the workers to work at all odd hours depending upon the needs of the mukadam.

The timings are usually dictated by the sugar factories and the contractors. Missing a day attracts a fine of Rs. 500/- per day, forcing workers to work through their illness. Women are seen to work until the last stages of pregnancy. Single women workers, who are called ardha koyta or half a sickle, face even worse conditions, often suffering sexual harassment at the workplace. They have to often carry their young children around during work. The plight of cane-cutters in general and of women cane-cutters in particular, has a rather long history as the experience of Kusum among many others illustrates.

What had recently brought the attention of a large section of the media and of society in general was the shocking revelation that a disproportionate number of women in Beed district, from where a large number of cane-cutters hail, were undergoing hysterectomies at a very young age, as brought out by Radheshyam Jadhav in the 11th April 2019 issue of Business Line, among many other reports. There were several disturbing reasons for this phenomenon, some important ones being the lack of any sort of facilities at the place of work, including the fact that they were not allowed to rest when ill. There were other health issues that the women cane-cutters were facing like repeated miscarriages due to the heavy work and long hours of work, their lack of access to healthcare. All these health issues of the women cane-cutters are inextricably intertwined. Also disturbing is the complete lack of facilities at their place of work and residence after migration. This had also attracted the attention of women’s organizations and networks.

Women speak

It was in order to go deeper into these issues that MAKAAM, a national level network of women farmers and organizations and individuals working with women farmers, decided to do a study and highlight the issues involved. It was in order to share this study, disseminate at a wider level and highlight the issues of these women that the state-level convention was organized. It was thought important that these issues also reach the Government of Maharashtra as there was an urgent need to have a concrete action plan.

In the meeting, women cane-cutters from Beed, Hingoli, Parbhani and Osmanabad districts of Marathwada also presented their experiences and concerns regarding several other issues as well.

Women also talked about the deep-rooted causes of child marriage, women’s health, lack of recognition as workers and thereby lack of social and economic security; failure of the public health system, failure of the NREGS to provide for local employment opportunities; failure to establish a Welfare Board for sugarcane cutters and transport workers and issues of other migrant and unorganised sector workers. Some of the ways forward that the women saw included the strengthening of the public systems in health, food security, housing as being critical for their social and economic security as well as of other migrant workers.

The concerns and demands of the women cane-cutters were a natural outcome of the strains and stresses they have experienced for generations and these were at different levels.

The women cane-cutters had made it very clear that their migration for cane-cutting is not something that they had `voluntarily’ chosen, that it had been a version of distress migration. Their children’s education had suffered; their own health had deteriorated and so on. What they would prefer is employment opportunities nearer their homes. This should have been made easily possible if MNREGA had been effectively implemented, as that precisely was an important rationale for the Act itself.

It was felt necessary that while the women are doing work as cane-cutters, they should be registered as workers, identity cards be provided to them and the wages of all the women should be deposited in their own bank accounts for the work that they have done based on hours spent in productive and reproductive work. This should be done through the establishment and effective operationalising of the Welfare Board for sugarcane cutters and transport workers. Also what is needed are concrete measures to address the question of sexual harassment of women.

It was suggested that the Welfare Board could be established on the lines of the Mathadi Board as a tripartite body. This Board could be responsible for fulfilling several crucial functions and responsibilities like overseeing the implementation of various GRs and Circulars regarding availability of amenities such as water, housing, bathrooms and toilets at the cane-cutting sites, ensuring access to rations from the PDS at the work site, ensuring hostels and school facilities for the children of the cane-cutters, especially girl children, ensuring health care facilities among others. A substantial and dedicated budget for these purposes, it was felt, was crucial if the issues of sugarcane cutters were to be meaningfully addressed.

Women’s concerns and Government response

The convention was attended by a large number of about 200 participants from different walks of life. While senior leader of the unorganized sector workers, Baba Adhav chaired the meeting, Shri Dhananjay Munde, Minister Social Justice and Special Assistance, who comes from Beed itself and Dr. Neelam Gorhe, Deputy Chairperson Vidhan Parishad were also present and made serious and time-bound commitments to the process of justice for women cane-cutters.

Both of them were categorical that the present Mahavikas Aghadi Government in Maharashtra was keen to address the issue of social and economic security of the cane-cutters with a special focus on women on an urgent basis.

One of the time-bound commitments given by Mr. Munde was the setting up of the Welfare Board for Sugarcane cutters and Transport workers. Both the Chief Minister and the Deputy Chief Minister had assured budgetary allocation in the budget session. The Deputy Chief Minister also assured a special package for cane-cutters. He also promised defining a policy regarding the Welfare Board which would include registration, providing ID cards, accounting numbers and accordingly planning for the budgetary provision for personal and collective benefits.

The Welfare Board would have a financial provision for helping the cane-cutters out of the exploitative system of advances given by the contractors. The minister also reiterated the need for a legal framework for the welfare board on the lines of the Mathadi Law. A draft policy would be prepared by the administration and would be presented in a webinar such as the present one to finalise it. Participation of various organisations would be sought.

To address the question of sexual harassment, especially among the young girls of sugarcane cutting families at least five residential hostels for girls would be planned, which would be extended to both boys and girls and efforts would be made to provide free education as well.

Dr. Neelam Gorhe also extended full support to the ten key demands put forward by MAKAAM and assured that she would personally follow up with the relevant ministries. She welcomed the commitments made by Shri Munde which she said would make it easier to address the demands raised. She also suggested a fortnightly follow up from the organisers till the demands are met with and supported the idea of the Joint committee with members from various organisations representing the interests of cane-cutters, especially women cane-cutters. She also offered to instruct the relevant department to issue job cards to all cane-cutters, especially women in a campaign mode from 2 October 2020 itself. She also made concrete suggestions regarding women’s health and welfare concerns.

While it is the responsibility of the Government to fulfill their promises to the women cane-cutters, it is also necessary for the organizations and trade unions working with the cane-cutters to take this ahead and follow up with various departments of the government as well as support women cane-cutters to organize autonomously to pursue their demands and their concerns.

Kusum’s opening remarks reminded me of what a tea plantation manager in Tamil Nadu had said some years ago. When asked about the access to schools for tea plucking women’s children in the remote hills of the Nilgiris in Tamil Nadu, he had blurted out in exasperation: `If we have good and accessible schools for the children of tea workers, where will the next generation of tea workers come from?’ Those remarks had shocked all of us, including him.

Indeed, this entire `arrangement’ of generations after generations of women caught up in a circle serves the interests of the sugar industry as well as strengthening the shackles of patriarchy and reproducing both.

The meeting concluded with a definite feeling and resolve that this cycle needs to be broken and we need to begin right here right now.

Sujata Gothoskar has been active in the labour movement and the feminist movement for the last several decades.

Originally published in Mainstream Weekly



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