It didn’t matter to the contractor that Sachin Pakhre had a fever. “Get up and cut the sugar cane. The land needs to be cleared today,” he roared. Ten hours later, 22-year-old Pakhre had finished cutting 1 000kg of cane with a sickle.
“Even if he has corona, he has to finish the work first,” said his mother, Ripkabai Pakhre. Not finishing the work can attract a penalty of twice his daily earnings of Rs273 (about R55), for which he has to cut one tonne of sugar cane during a 14-hour day.
Sachin is among the estimated 1.5 million cane harvesters or cutters in western India’s Maharashtra state who migrate hundreds of kilometres from their villages between October and April every year. The workers belong predominantly to what are regarded as lower castes or are members of designated indigenous communities known as Adivasis.
Sugar production in India is second only to Brazil in volume. In the 2020-2021 season, Maharashtra alone had produced 5.15 million tonnes of sugar by 15 January, with three more months of cane crushing left.
But it comes with a bitter taste of labour law violations, exploitation and inequality. In Maharashtra, contractors attract couples from drought-prone districts by paying them an advance. Relatives or even children take the place of a partner who is unavailable. The workers are typically forced to take this work because of debts, poverty and the effects of drought on their subsistence farming.
Cycle of poverty
Sunil Uchigre, from Maharashtra’s Parbhani district, was forced to do this work when one of his relatives took an advance of Rs70 000 for cane cutting from a contractor and ran away. Within a few days, the contractor was at Uchigre’s house to demand that he either repay the money or cut 255 tonnes of cane within six months. Uchigre knew he couldn’t do either, so he took out a loan from a moneylender and paid the contractor.
However, he had to repay the loan within a year, and to do so he took an advance from the contractor, agreeing to sign up as a cane cutter. Failing to cut the required number of tonnes within six months, he has been forced to return again and again to work off the money he owes. “I am caught in this cycle of debt now,” said Uchigre.
The extended lockdown in March 2020 led to schools being closed for more months. With hostels converted to Covid-19 facilities, a lack of access to e-learning and dwindling incomes, the workers were forced to bring their children to the sugar cane fields. They fear this will land them in this work, too, perpetuating the vicious cycle of poverty in their families.
This photo essay, which was shot in Jambhali, Khochi and Yadrav villages in the Kolhapur district in Maharashtra, captures the life of sugar cane workers who migrated from the Parbhani, Jalna and Jalgaon districts of Maharashtra to Kolhapur, traversing over 700km.