No Way Out: Dangerous Fields for Poor Sugarcane Cutters in India

Urmila Owhal became a bride when she was 13 years old. The sooner she gets married, the sooner she will be able to make money in the sugarcane fields, where contractors prefer to hire couples-one person to chop and the other person to load the sugarcane into the truck.

After 14 hours of working in the old, dry air of the Indian sugar belt, Owhal put a 50-pound bundle of sugar cane as high as her fragile body on a flatbed truck. She lost her balance and fell, crushing her groin and spine. She and her husband had no choice but to borrow $2,000 from the contractor to pay for the surgery-which is twice the couple’s six-month labor income.

That day in Maharashtra in January made Owhal limp. She cannot fold her legs while sitting. Her broken body is eager to rest, but like thousands of other desperate rural Indians, she must go to the sugar field.

“I have no choice,” said 23-year-old Owhal, whose debt is still outstanding. “I will sit down and wrap up the bundle of sugar cane. I will help my husband as much as I can. I will take painkillers. If I don’t go, he will be unemployed.”

Owhal’s dependence on sugar cane is intentional.Cheap and convenient Exploited migrant workers Need to power one Indian sugar industry worth US$1.7 billion, Second only to the scale of Brazil. By providing loans for often unrealistic harvest quotas and paying workers’ wages in advance, contractors effectively trap sugarcane cutters in the cycle of debt bondage.

Sugarcane cutters in northern India.

Sugarcane cutters in northern India.

(Minnesota/Time)

Women bear the brunt of this cruel arrangement. Many people are injured at work and are under endless pressure to produce more products. They live in the dirt by the field and have no toilets. Infections and diseases are common. Before the recent government crackdown, thousands of female cane cutters were deceived by predatory doctors to perform medically unnecessary hysterectomy. They were told that menstruation would reduce their productivity.

“Workers live in a makeshift hut built with hay and tarpaulins,” said Manisha Tokle, an activist of Beed who works to improve field conditions. “They cook under the open sky, bathe and urinate under the open sky. How should women manage?”

Suffering is passed on from generation to generation. Both Owhal’s parents and her husband’s parents are cane knives. Her mother-in-law Sojar Owhal spent several years in the plantation, hunched over, beat the straw with a machete, and then used a head-balanced bale to load it onto a truck. The pressure of earning a day’s salary made her reluctant to rest. She attributed the three miscarriages to Ruthless Realm.

Temporary huts for sugar cane cutters in western Maharashtra.

Temporary huts for sugar cane cutters in western Maharashtra.

(Minnesota/Time)

“I try to stick to it as much as possible because we have made progress,” Sojar Owhal said. “Once you accept the money in advance, you will be at the mercy of the contractor.”

Sojar Owhal, 45, gave birth to her first child in a small clearing on the plantation, surrounded by cutters. After 12 days, she returned to work.

Like many farming families, owls are attracted by sugarcane felling because they can only rely on farming. No longer support them. Fertilizers, pesticides and seeds become unaffordable. Climate change has caused floods, droughts and heat waves to ravage crops. More and more desperate Thousands of farmers are being pushed to suicide. The COVID-19 pandemic is only Deteriorating outlook Serving 800 million rural residents in India.

Sugar cane is loaded onto trucks in western Maharashtra.

Sugar cane is loaded onto trucks in western Maharashtra.

(Minnesota/Time)

“At best, we can hope to grow enough food to make ends meet,” Sojar Owhal said. “But where do we get the cash? You need money to pay for your child’s tuition. When someone is sick, you need money. Cutting sugar cane is our only source of cash.”

Sojar Owhal is weak, and she can’t join the migration to the sugar fields in autumn these days-the children bid farewell to their young parents in tears, sitting on a cart pulled by a tractor, playing local Marathi songs or ancient seals. The tunes in the local language movies.

When the workers left, there was not much left in the village of Katowa, east of Bid. The cupboards and doors are padlocked; the dirt road becomes empty. Sojar Owhal spends time with the elderly, the infirm and a small number of children. Only the song of birds or the blowing of the leaves by the hot wind can break the silence.

One of the villagers who left Katowa to go to the fields was Lata Waghmare, who has been growing sugar cane for most of her life. Four years after being married at the age of 13, Wagmar heard screams in the plantation. A colleague discovered that Waghmare’s 5-month-old daughter was crushed to death by a tractor. The next day, her contractor forced her to go back to work.

“He doesn’t allow me time to grieve,” Wagmar said. Like most sugarcane-cutting mothers, she has no choice but to put her children near where she works. “Until today, I blame myself for what happened to my daughter.”

Waghmare, 32, gave birth to three more children. After the last one was born 12 years ago, the doctor persuaded her to perform a hysterectomy for suspicious medical reasons. Waghmare agreed, thinking it would make her work longer. To this day, she has never been warned of potential side effects-mood swings, dizziness-torment her.

Lata Waghmare In her village, her five-month-old daughter was crushed to death by a tractor in a sugar field.

Lata Waghmare is in her village. Her 5-month-old daughter was crushed to death by a tractor in a sugar field.

(Minnesota/Time)

“I did what I thought was important to our survival at the time,” she said. “If you are not efficient, you won’t get money. I can’t fall behind because of my menstrual cramps. We don’t have toilets in the sugar cane field.”

Local lawmakers are trying to improve conditions, and some workers have joined trade unions. But no meaningful reforms have changed the industry. Because their employment is informal, sugarcane cutters are not subject to minimum wage laws and are not eligible for social security benefits.

India is the world’s largest consumer of sugar, so it has become a big business for the so-called tycoons who dominate trade. They include members of the Indian political elite, whose profits are protected by government policies aimed at preventing fluctuations in wholesale prices of commodities. Activists say that sugar tycoons use third-party contractors to hire sugar cane cutters, which creates an illusion between them and the tragic working conditions they impose on migrant workers.

“They have made such a huge profit, but they continue to exploit sugar cane cutters,” said Ashok Tandge, a Bid worker’s rights advocate. “The least they can do is pay their decent wages and ensure basic facilities in the workplace.”

A truck full of sugar cane.

A truck full of sugar cane.

(Minnesota/Time)

Hanumant Mundhe, a contractor based in Bid, said the poor working conditions are to be blamed on the sugar factory. He said his job is limited to hiring enough workers and paying advances.

“These facilities should be provided by the sugar factory,” Mundhe said. “In some cases, they will get water, but I haven’t seen anyone providing toilets for workers. They have to go to the fields. This has been the case for many years.”

Labor Minister Omprakash Babarao Kadu of Maharashtra did not respond to a request for comment.

A survey released last year by Makaam, a coalition of women’s organizations and health advocates, found that 44% of female sugarcane cutters had no access to water in the workplace, 99% had no access to toilets, and 86% had no access to electricity. Nearly 20% of the respondents said they gave birth in sugar fields, and more than 10% said they had aborted during the picking season. Approximately 3% said they experienced some form of sexual harassment at work.

Urmila Owhal and her husband Krishna Owhal are now back in western Maharashtra, 250 miles from Kathoda’s home. This is her first layoff season since her injury. When she needs relief, she must go deep into the fields to find privacy. She was afraid of slipping and aggravating her injury during the hike, and then worried about the distance to the nearest clinic and if there were any problems, her contractor would not care. Nevertheless, staying in Katoda has never been an option. Farming there is too risky.

“You worked hard on your land for a few months, and then it might be destroyed after 20 minutes of hail,” she said.

A worker carries a heavy bundle of sugar cane.

A worker carries a heavy bundle of sugar cane.

(Minnesota/Times)

Owhal, the mother of two children, is full of fatalism. She doesn’t know other ways of life. Cutting sugar cane put her in debt, but only enough to feed her family.

“No matter what happens,” she said, “I think we will never be able to escape from the sugar cane fields.”

Special correspondent Perth, Minnesota, and Pearson, special writer of Times reported from Singapore.

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