While sipping your cutting chai in Amdavad, did you ever wonder where its sweetness comes from? One teaspoon of sugar in your masala chai comes after pouring the blood, sweat and tears of migrant labourers who work in the unorganised sector of sugarcane harvesting in Gujarat. These harvesters are counted among the most deprived groups of the social-economic order.
To address these questions, Ahmedabad Parlons–a talk series that aims to connect the average citizen to the reality of their urban lives–took place in our city. Organised by Ahmedabad School of Public Policy and Centre for Labour Research and Action (CLRA)–the three-day event took place in Alliance Francaise, Ahmedabad.
Sugarcane is a money-spinning crop for landowners in South Gujarat. The cutting of this crop takes place between September to April. “Ongoing indebtedness is a major feature of the working class as the workers are charged huge interest for the advance paid to them at the moment of recruitment,” said Denis Macwan who leads the union team in Surat. The mobilisation of nearly two lakh sugarcane harvesting workers remains a rare instance of organising workers in the informal sector.
Labourers from the tribal belt of Gujarat are employed in sugarcane harvesting. A total of 39% of labourers are from Dang–the rest are from Tapi, Narmada, Jalgaon, Nashik and other regions. Here, 75% of harvesters belong to landless families and 83% of labourers are illiterate.
As per the CLRA study, adults toil for 12 to 14 hours a day. The advance amount paid by muqaddams to workers ranges between Rs. 14000-15000. The average daily wage for these workers is Rs. 119/day which is much less than even half of the minimum wage for agriculture in Gujarat which stands at Rs. 324 per day. Only 20% of these bonded labourers are marginal landholders. More than 80% of workers are within the age interval of 21-45 years.
Dharmesh Ranchod Zamre, aged 35 has been working cutting sugarcane since the age of 15. For the last twenty years, he along with his family migrated from Subir village in Dangs district to Surat to cut sugarcane for 14-16 hours a day. His wife, Rahalben aged 32 has been working cutting sugarcane since the age of 15. The couple described how the working conditions are pathetic and oppressive. The harvesters have to toil for long hours without provisions of basic facilities and safety measures. Leaving them prone to hazards of injury.
As per the Gujarat State Federation of Cooperative Sugar Factories Limited (GSFCSFL):
- There are 24 sugar mills in Gujarat, out of which 16 are in South Gujarat
- 4.50 lakh farmers’ families are cultivating sugarcane in a total area of 1.62 lakh hectares
- Annual turnover is 2,000 crores and they provide an annual income of 250 crore to Central and State government
The harvesters are also trapped in a vortex of poverty and unemployment. They have become easy prey to inhuman exploitation in harvesting operations. A large majority of harvesters express despair and indifference as they feel that they are doomed to toil in harvesting operations for their lifetimes and so will their children too, completing a vicious cycle.
India is the world’s largest producer and consumer of sugar and the second-largest exporter. 50 million farmers are involved in India’s sugar industry, cultivating sugarcane in an area spanning almost five million hectares (50,000 sq km).
According to the Indian government, during last year’s sugar season, more than 500 million metric tonnes of sugarcane were produced in the country. It is a record that the government is celebrating, but it comes at a high cost to vulnerable migrant labourers.