Photo Essay | A life measured in sugar cane

Migrant labourers in India’s Maharashtra state produce millions of tonnes of sugar through their back-breaking work, but they earn just enough to trap them in debt.

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. 

4 February 2021: Sachin Pakhre, 22, rests in the field in the scorching heat while running a fever. Within five minutes, the contractor woke him and instructed him to get back to work immediately.

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.

4 February 2021: Farmers from nearby villages buy what is left of the sugar cane from the cutters to feed to their livestock.

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. 

22 December 2020: Ripkabai Pakhre, 40, at work cutting sugar cane. Women often reach the fields only between 8am and 9am after finishing household chores and walking long distances to fetch drinking water.

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.

22 December 2020: A child sleeps in a hammock created by tying a sari between two strong sugar cane stems. Some women accompany groups of migrant cutters to look after children whose parents work in the field.
4 February 2021: Sugar cane bundles are tied and arranged on the field to ease the process of loading them into a trailer or bullock cart.
4 February 2021: Ishwar Pakhre, 16, is in grade 10. He was forced to start cutting cane when schools in India remained shut for months owing to the Covid-19 lockdown.
4 February 2021: Laxman Pakhre, Avinash Jogdand, Manoj Pakhre and Ishwar Pakhre watch a video while enjoying a few minutes’ rest from their back-breaking work.
22 December 2020: Cuts on the feet and arms are common in this line of work.
4 February 2021: A tired Manoj Pakhre, 34, rests for a while after cutting over 1 000kg of sugar cane during a day’s work.
4 February 2021: Women carry the tied sugar cane bundles, each weighing about 30kg, for loading into a trailer. According to Ripkabai Pakhre, they have to make at least 300 trips back and forth during a normal working day.
6 February 2021: Bullock carts are used to transport the sugar cane to nearby sugar mills. Here, about 400 carts wait outside the Sharad sugar mill in Narande village in Kolhapur.
4 February 2021: Drupada Dakure, who is in her late 20s, begins preparing dinner after returning from a day’s work in the fields.
4 February 2021: An 18-month-old girl sips milk from a steel bowl after returning from the field with her mother, who has nobody to look after her in her home village.
4 February 2021: Sunita Pakhre sieves grains as she prepares dinner outside her shelter in the workers’ camp.
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