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Maharashtra cane-cutters: Women, children face hardest brunt of exploitation

Below are excerpts from Oxfam India’s discussion paper “Human Cost of Sugar Living and Working Conditions of Migrant Cane-cutters in Maharashtra” by Pooja Adhikari and Vani Shree with inputs from Namit Agarwal, Ranu Bhogal, Diya Dutta and Sayantoni Datta:
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Approximately 80% of the population in Marathwada is dependent on agriculture and animal husbandry for their livelihood. These are the only sources of sustained earnings for the community. However, prolonged drought over the years has led to agrarian distress, and lack of alternative livelihood opportunities forces people to migrate. Crop insurance schemes have failed to cover these losses.
Funds disbursed under the crop insurance scheme for drought prone areas of Marathwada were inadequate to cover the losses. The total amount disbursed under the scheme is limited to a few thousand rupees per person, compared to the loss incurred in hundreds of thousands per person/ per season on each crop.
Government’s minimum employment guarantee scheme, MGNREGA, has not been effective to provide alternative livelihoods. Out of 0.9 million workers registered under MGNREGA in Beed, only 135,000 workers got jobs. Furthermore, many of those who have worked under the scheme complained of delayed payment or no payments.
Agrarian distress coupled with absence of alternative livelihood options have resulted in widespread indebtedness. Indebtedness is highly prevalent in the region and workers borrow money from local moneylenders or labour contractors acting as moneylenders – to meet their daily expenses.
In Beed district, 67% of the workers are indebted. Lenders charge interest rates as high as 3-5% per month and the borrowers’ inability to repay in time, pushes them into a vicious cycle. People in the region are forced to migrate to find work in sugarcane growing areas in nearby districts.
Due to their existing indebtedness, workers usually take cash advances against wages for repayment of the previous loans, marriage expenses, construction of houses, etc. Despite working for over 12-18 hours a day, the workers are often unable to clear their advances and end up in a vicious cycle of indebtedness. Most of the workers interviewed reported having dues ranging from INR 55,000 to 100,000 from the previous season.

ACCESS TO LAND AND WATER

Land and water conflicts run hand in hand with the people belonging to historically marginalised castes in Maharashtra and having a separate neighbourhood in villages, known as Harijan or Dalit vasti. A large number of them do not own land or own a very small piece of uncultivable land. They have limited water storage capacity, and lack resources to ‘purchase’ water from tanker suppliers or transport it from distant sources.
They are the ones who are forced to stand last in the queue for tanker water supply and face multiple atrocities, especially the women. For example there have been cases wherein drinking water in Dalit communities was polluted by human excreta in Konkan part of Maharashtra. They do not have access to unused public land for cattle grazing. There have been several steps taken by the government to regularise the unused public land occupied by the Dalit communities in Marathwada. However, water scarcity makes such land unusable even for cattle grazing and eventually forcing them to migrate.
During the study, workers shared that people living in Marathwada purchase water through private water tankers costing between Rs 700-1000 for 2000-2500 litres in the absence of reliable public water supply. Workers also shared that some areas receive water supplied through canals but the marginalised communities are excluded as the water often is diverted upstream towards more influential communities.
Water scarcity in the region also has an impact on livestock. Farmers with cattle depend on government fodder camps to prevent drought induced distress sale of cattle. Half of the fodder camps in Maharashtra are located in Marathwada with Beed having the largest number of fodder camps. During the study respondents raised concerns about the quality and governance of fodder camps.

WAGES

Workers migrate from source to destination spending 2-3 days. Mukkadams usually hire people from different villages based on his negotiation power and prefers creating a random group often comprising people who are complete strangers to each other, thus limiting their collective bargaining power. A jodi cuts approximately 2 – 3 tonnes of cane in a day for which they are paid between Rs. 200-250 (as a couple) per ton of cane harvested by them.
Wages vary between Rs 200-Rs 375 per day. The minimum wage is at Rs 300 per person for a day’s work fixed by the Government of India for agricultural labour including those hired on contract in category C towns. Cane-cutters work for almost 12-15 hours in a day to earn an amount equivalent for 8 hours work.
Workers are not eligible for any leaves during their work and face unexplained wage deductions for any leaves. Wage deductions from a day or half-day’s leave can vary from Rs 500 – 1000 per day. Workers complain of unjustified adjustments to their wages and/or advances. Workers feel that their advances are never settled despite working hard to repay.
Often the total amount of cane harvested by them gets underwritten leading to further deductions from their salary. Sugar mills that are the original employers of contracted cane harvesters do not take the responsibility of overseeing wage payments; contractors never fully settle dues, by indulging in unexplained wage deductions. The only livelihood progression for workers is to switch to another contractor. However, this does not change their financial situation and continue being trapped in a debt cycle.

OCCUPATIONAL HEALTH AND SAFETY

The entire process of cane cutting and loading is a tedious one. Women workers head load cane bundles on trucks/ trolleys. The loading usually takes place at late evenings after sunset. Women workers climb a steep ladder set up against the trolley with a head load of cane in very little or no light. Accidents and injuries are common in this process, as the ground is slippery and with sharp objects or insects.
Workers informed of several accidents that have happened during the loading process leading to fractures and even death in some cases. Workers do not get any insurance or compensation for such accidents and injuries. Contractors may provide a loan in such cases to be settled against future wages. Young children who accompany their parents to the field often end up working.
Children are found tying sugarcane tops into bundles (4-5 kgs each), which they sell to farmers. In a day, one child ties 20-25 such bundles. Instances of accidents involving children are common with some leading to deaths. However, workers feel that such accidents are never reported.

IMPACT ON WOMEN

Female labour participation rate in the sugarcane farms of Maharashtra is high owing to the jodi practice of hiring worker couples. However, it makes it difficult for women without a male member in the family to find employment. Wage payments are calculated and paid as a couple rather than individual workers.
Wages for the jodi are usually paid to the male member thereby diminishing women’s control over finances and also reducing women’s agency as a worker. Childcare and care work responsibilities are borne by women or adolescent girls. Nursing mothers carry their children to the sugarcane farms in the absence of any crèche or Aanganwadi facilities.
Safety concerns lead to young girls migrating with parents to work and help with care-work. This leads to a higher dropout of girls from schools. The ratio of drop out children from school (in 2009) was 41% and ratio of never enrolled children was 59 per cent for Maharashtra most of which are girls. 27 per cent of the total dropouts happen because of poverty.
This adds to the prevalence of early and child marriages of girls in these communities. Domestic violence, gender based violence, and verbal, physical, and sexual abuse is also common. Alcoholism and multiple sexual partners for men is also common adding to family conflict and violence.
Inter-generational abuse, exploitation and vulnerability of women and girls without agency and control over finance or property rights have led to a societal bias against girls. The average sex ratio for children below 6 years in Marathwada is 926 girls for 1000 boys, in Beed the ratio is 912 girls for 1000 boys.

SEXUAL AND REPRODUCTIVE HEALTH

Scarcity of water has made existing toilets in the Marathwada region unusable leading to open defecation. For migrant cane harvesters, there are no toilets in the makeshift labour colonies. This is particularly unsafe and humiliating for women workers, who have no option but to relieve themselves in the open, or take bath before sunrise or after sunset, when it is dark.
For women workers, the situation gets more undignified and humiliating during menstrual cycles. Awareness about menstrual hygiene and ability to use sanitary pads is non-existent. Women use dirty and damp cloths that increase the likelihood of infections. Women workers informed that symptoms of Leucorrhoea are very common among them.
This severely affects their work and to avoid unpaid sick leaves they go for over-the-counter medication at the time of migrating. Even young girls who have recently attained puberty complain of infections. Poor menstrual hygiene and care causes fungal and bacterial infections leading to Pelvic Inflammatory Diseases (PID), Vaginitis and uterine infections of several forms. In extreme cases this also leads to cervical cancer.
Local gynaecologists and CSOs working on public health shared that lack of awareness on menstrual hygiene and sexual and reproductive health is the primary reason for the health issues faced by women in Beed. Local public health professionals estimate that more than 90% women in these labour camps are anaemic because of a poor diet. Public health facilities at the source villages are inadequate to address their ailments.
Lack of medical facilities near labour camps makes follow-up medical treatments impossible, thereby prolonging their disease and making their conditions worse. It is common for women workers to consult private health practitioners for symptoms of PID, vaginitis and uterine infections. There is a widespread fear among women workers that such infections can lead to cancer.
Local public health professionals and social workers believe that private practitioners take advantage of this fear and recommend removal of uterus to those who complain of infections. This is particularly common for women having more than two children; it is believed that “the purpose of the uterus is over”. Over 85% of the hysterectomies were conducted at private hospitals in Beed.
Local social workers believe that a nexus exists between private health practitioners and hospitals that deceive the workers to go for hysterectomy. Workers usually take wage advances from their contractors for hysterectomy. The lean period of sugarcane cutting is often the season when large numbers of women opt for the surgeries.

WORKER ENTITLEMENTS

Women workers are denied entitlement under Maternity Benefit (Amendment) Act 2017. Pregnant women work for the same number of working hours as others and under the same conditions. Often women workers go into labour on the farm itself, with little or no medical assistance from anyone except from fellow women workers.
The post-partum recovery phase is considered leave without pay because of which new mothers rest for only 7-10 days compared to the recommended 6 weeks. New mothers get back to the cane cutting work along with their new-born child without any Aanganwadi or crèche facilities.
Sugarcane workers are not covered under social security benefits such as Employee Provident Fund (EPF) or Employee State Insurance Corporation (ESIC). In 2019, the Maharashtra government set up a welfare board for sugarcane workers to extend the benefits under EPF and ESIC to sugarcane workers. However, the labour department raised concerns about lack of funding and its sustainability.

CHILD RIGHTS AND RIGHT TO EDUCATION

Nearly 200,000 children below the age of 14 accompany their parents when they migrate for cane harvesting in Maharashtra every year. Over half of them are in the age group of 6 – 14 years (54% boys and 46% girls). Children are drawn into the labour force from the early age of 6-7 years and by the age of 11-12 years they are full-fledged labour. Their labour is subsumed under the category of “family labour”.
Children of migrant cane cutters are among the most excluded from and deprived of their Right to Education. Social workers working on child rights and education in the region believe that the nomadic lifestyle of cane-cutter parents further alienates their children from the education system.
Adolescent girls face more deprivation than that faced by boys as they have additional responsibilities of care work, fetching water and household chores. Water scarcity puts additional pressure and young children spend several hours fetching water. Reports of children in Beed dying while fetching water is an ‘annual affair’.
Children of migrant cane-cutting workers are unable to restart school after returning to their villages after migration season due to non-attendance and discontinuation of studies for six months; this results in dropouts.
Shakhar Shalas are temporary second semester schools set up by the sugar mills in Maharashtra that provides continued schooling during migration season so that the children can continue after going back to their village. However, Shakhar Shalas have faced criticism for not being functional and for sugar mills using these as a reputation building CSR activity.

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