Oppressed for generations, women cane cutters in Maharashtra continue to work in inhuman conditions, shows study
Women cane cutters are required to work for 13 to 18 hours a day without any weekly rest day. They work even during illness, menstruation, pregnancy or delivery, which affects their health, the study said
Usha Dhepe migrates every year to Kolhapur from her native Osmanabad district to cut sugarcane. Some years ago, her husband committed suicide and she was left to fend for her family of three children.
In local jargon, a couple which cuts sugarcane and loads it on trucks is called ‘koyta’ (sickle). A single woman is 'ardha koyta' or half a sickle. She also gets half the payment which is usually in the form of an advance.
This ‘koyta’ tag in a way symbolises the inhuman conditions of the workers. According to Subhash Kakuste, general secretary of the Maharashtra Rajya Sakhar Kamgar Mahasangh, the usage of the word had invited rebuke from a judge in Gujarat some 15 years ago when an order was passed hiking the wages of cane cutters who had migrated to the state. But the order could not be implemented as the workers were not registered and they could not be traced.
Since its formation in 1960, the Maharashtra Rajya Sakhar Kamgar Mahasangh, has worked without success to get social security for the cane cutters. But except for a wage increase in 1980 — the only time the cane cutters went on strike — their conditions have not improved.
Kakuste also informs that many years ago, the Supreme Court had said that cane cutters are workers and entitled to all benefits, but evidently nothing came of that.
Dhepe continues her story: “I have to take my children with me, and also take food rations for four to five months."
At her workplace there is no water or light and they sleep in a dark hovel. She wakes up at 4 am every day and slaves till midnight to repay the Rs 10,000 she received as advance from the contractor who hires them.
"If we fall ill and don’t report for work, the mukadam (contractor) charges a fine of Rs 500. Something needs to be done for women like us,” she said.
Prosperity, power and wealth in Maharashtra is synonymous with sugarcane but the might of sugar barons doesn’t ensure a decent existence for thousands of cane cutters whose life has been a drudgery for generations.
A new study, Crushed Hopes: The Plight of Women Cane Cutters in Maharashtra, points to the oppressive and demeaning working and living conditions of women cane cutters. The study was conducted by the Mahila Kisan Adhikar Manch (MAKAAM) and involved 1,042 women sugarcane cutters from eight districts of Maharashtra namely Beed, Hingoli, Jalna, Latur, Nanded, Osmanabad, Parbhani and Solapur.
The cane cutters migrate to western Maharashtra in most cases and some of them to other states during October to March each year.
Dhepe and other single women spoke through a webinar on their plight at a discussion on the launch of the report recently. The women workers are disadvantaged more so as they carry the burden of work, running a household as well looking after children. Women work for an average 15 hours a day, says the study.
Suman Ovhal from Beed is a third generation cane cutter. Her mother and grandmother too harvested sugarcane. Like her, they were also married in their early teens. She has four daughters and a son.
"I got my children too married early as we are worried for our daughters' security,” she said. A grandmother now, Ovhal still continues to work as a daily wage labourer and migrates all the time for work.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, it is migrant workers who have carried the cross of unemployment, and the single women among these workers face a life of manifold challenges. The report estimates the number of sugarcane cutters in Maharashtra between 10-15 lakh. However, the actual number could be higher.
Failed MNREGA and an exploitative system
The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MNREGA) could have played an important role in this context, but the schemes implemented under the Act have failed these women.
Only 24 percent of the women surveyed have job cards and just 16 (1.5 percent) of the 1,042 women surveyed reported that they got work during last year in any rural employment scheme.
Suman Waman Chavan from Parbhani said that there was no work in her village. Not having opportunities in their village forces these people to migrate.
In 2016, the workers took out a morcha in Pune to the Sugar Commissionerate, demanding a census of all sugarcane cutters, registration, job cards and minimum wages, according to activist Kishore Dhamale.
He alleges that the workers do not get rations, and often, the ration shop insists that they deposit the cards before they migrate on the pretext of providing for the remaining members of the family.
But in reality, the ration shops claim the rations and sell them, alleged Dhamale.
Some years ago, the Mahasangh suggested that a welfare board on the lines of the Mathadi Board (for mathadi workers or headload carriers) in Pune, be set up for the sugarcane cutters so that they are registered, have workers benefits and social security, but this was never implemented, he informs.
In 2019, there was an attempt to register all the sugarcane cutters, especially women, under the Gopinath Munde Oostod Kamgar Mahamandal, but nothing happened.
Gautam Mogale, a social activist from Hingoli, said workers are charged Rs 100 for a job card, but there is no employment or work anywhere. he informs that many women have filled forms, but even after 50 days, they haven’t got any work.
He further informs that even when there is work, it is not assigned properly, muster rolls are not kept and there is no payment for three months or more.
An inhuman existence, especially for women
This forced migration comes with several other pitfalls.
According to Manjula Bhanudas Jadhav from Beed, after her husband’s death, she worked for half the money. A couple, ie, husband and wife, is usually paid Rs 50,ooo to Rs 60,000 a harvesting season.
“They make us work for their advance, even if we are sick. Fifteen days after my delivery, they kept pestering me to return to work,” she said.
In the case of Sangita Kamble from Hingoli, her husband fell ill soon after they received their advance and she used the money for his treatment. She went back to work but the contractors abused her as the money was given for both of them.
"My husband died. And since I had to work to repay the advance, I had no option but to take my elder daughter with me. But they didn't pay her any wages as she didn’t count for some reason."
The study also said that basic amenities as well as health services were not provided to workers. Cane cutting is a tough job that requires hard labour for 13 to 18 hours a day. They also do not get a weekly rest day and work without a break for three to four months.
Women also hardly take time off during illness, menstruation, pregnancy or delivery, which affects their health.
Manisha Tokle, a social activist from Beed, said that the serious issue of child marriage among these women is not talked about. Sometimes the age of marriage is as low as 11 or 12 or even 13 and 14.
Of all the married women who were part of the survey, 69 percent were married before they turned 18, and among these, 20 percent were married before they were 14 years old, the study found.
These women work through pregnancy carrying 40 kg of cane at a time to load it on trucks. In addition, there are no creches or anyone to care for the children while the women work.
Security for women too is a major issue and 90 percent of the women have no idea where their workplace is located. Sometimes women who have left their husbands are forced to join them in work (in cases where they have taken a joint advance) and risk abuse and violence.
"It is an inhuman existence," Tokle remarked.
Of the 1,042 women surveyed, 26 (2.4 percent) said that they experienced sexual harassment at the workplace.
Chaya Padghan, from Hingoli said it is as if their existence is wiped out by the contractors because they are given an advance – it has frightening consequences.
The debts keep accumulating and generations are repaying it.
Hutatma Pattern shows the way, but to no avail
However, there is one sugar factory in Maharashtra founded in 1981, by freedom fighter Nagnathanna Nayakawadi in Walwe, Sangli district, which bucks the trend. Nayakawadi who was active in the 1942 Quit India movement, faced stiff resistance and had to wait eight years before he could construct the factory.
The Padmabhushan Krantiveer Dr Nagnathanna Nayakawadi Kisar Ahir Sahakari Sakhar Karkhana which has won awards for its highest recovery of sugar, also provides for the workers and the manner of running the factory is known as the “Hutatma Pattern".
It has built 400 pucca houses with water and toilets for the cane cutters, and a school as well for the children of the workers. There are facilities for the children to study upto college, according to Balasaheb Krishna Nayakawadi, a social activist and nephew of the freedom fighter.
“Nagnathanna wanted to create a new way of doing things and he was aware of the problems of the poor. We have free medical facilities and also a canteen with subsidised food at nominal rates,” he said.
Many activists have been demanding that the Hutatma Pattern be implemented in all sugar factories, to no avail.
Govt recommenations yet to be implemented
In 2019, there was an uproar over women sugarcane cutters being forced to undergo hysterectomies at a very young age at the behest of the contractors who employ them to harvest sugarcane. The government set up a committee headed by Dr Neelam Gorhe, Shiv Sena MLA and deputy chairperson of Maharashtra Legislative Council, and the report was accepted by the government in August 2019, but its recommendations are yet to be fully implemented.
Sheela Waghmare from Beed contues to suffer from the after effects of a hysterectomy. Married at 12, she had children when she was 18. Soon after her surgery, some years ago, she had to start work. The study shows that 93 percent of the hysterectomies were performed on women before 40.
Dr Gorhe said that the report had special recommendations for migrant workers and two government resolutions were issued relating to the registration of workers and other supportive measures for the workers. The workers are entitled to free check-ups at primary health centres and sugar factories have to set up sub-committees for the workers’ needs.
She said that more than 3.5 lakh workers in Beed benefitted from health check-ups.
“We also suggested that the families get rations in the home district and to where they migrate. Also, with reference to the threat of violence, I have instructed the police to take complaints of underage girls on priority,” she said.
There are comprehensive SOPs issued to the health department in the case of hysterectomies: the civil surgeon has to be kept in the loop and the women must go to designated hospitals for their treatment, she added.
Meanwhile, it is learnt that the Bharatiya Janata Party(BJP) is actively mobilising sugarcane cutters and holding meetings in various places.
The way sugarcane cutters have been treated since the first sugar factory was established in 1950 at Loni, in Ahmednagar, greatly diminishes the cooperative movement in Maharashtra and the might of the politicians who mobilised it.
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