Excerpts from the study, “A Bitter Harvest: Seasonal Migrant Sugarcane Harvesting Workers of South Gujarat”, researched and published by Prayas Centre for Labour Research and Action (PCLRA)*:
Most of the south Gujarat region, especially of and around the Bardoli zone, has always been considered as an exceptionally prosperous agricultural bloc primarily because of its fertile black soil. Prior to being bestowed upon by irrigation facilities by the dams of Kakrapar and Ukai millet, cotton, groundnuts, rice and lentils were the main crops grown in the region. But since the sixties, especially after construction of Ukai dam, sowing area under sugarcane has expanded rapidly and at the moment a huge swathe of the total agricultural land of Surat, Tapi, Navsari and Valsad districts is growing sugarcane.
The expansion of agricultural land under sugarcane and establishment of sugar mills on cooperative basis in south Gujarat has been a replica model of agro-industrial development adopted in neighbouring districts of Maharashtra. In neighbouring state mainly middle and large farmers belonging to dominant higher and intermediate castes have imposed or reaffirmed their political, social and economic hegemony and clout through the instrument of sugar cooperatives.
Harvesting of sugarcane is considered to be the major agricultural operation in the entire agriculture related process of prosperous South Gujarat region. It involves a highly intensive and gargantuan scale of harvesting. The entire process takes up a period of roughly five months –beginning at the end of November lasting till the middle of May.
The one specific characteristic of the labourers who harvest sugarcanes during this stretch of period every year is that almost all of them do not belong to the agriculturally prosperous area, the central agricultural zone where sugarcane is cultivated and are migrants in nature. This huge migrant labour force of sugarcane-harvesters is employed and utilized by cooperative sugar factories located in south Gujarat region. According to Gujarat State Federation of Cooperative Sugar Factories Limited (GSFCSFL) there are 23 such sugar mills in the state out of which 16are in operational state at present in the study-region.
As per the official information retrieve from GSFCSFL’s website, in all 4.50 lakh farmer families are cultivating sugarcanes in their farms, sowing sugarcanes in a total area of 1.62 lakh hectares within the purview of GSFCSFL’s 23 sugar factories. These member factories provide employment to 5.50 lakh individuals that include those being employed in factories at various levels of works as well as sugarcane-harvesters. The annual turnover covering all members is rupees 2,000 crores with a daily crushing capacity of around 80,000 metric tonnes. The GSFCSF also takes up philanthropic activities such as running schools and hospitals.
What is unstated in the official website of the strong Federation is the political clout it enjoys in the power corridors of Governments at both the levels; state and central irrespective of political parties present. This drives political leaders of all parties to find seats in managing board of the federation in order to have steering power over the social order of the sugarcane growing zones as well as political economy of sugar production.
The state has never paid serious attention towards the pathetic working and living conditions and inhuman state of existence of sugarcane harvesters. The sugarcane crushed by the 16 factories during the year 2016-2017, starting from first week of November, 2016 and ending in the first week of May 2017 amounted to 80,22,558 MT which produced 85,49,395 quintals of sugar, with wages being paid to harvesters amounting to an approximate 190 crores.
Like Maharashtra, the South Gujarat region too has seen the big farmers of dominant especially Patidar and Anavil Brahmin castes take the lead in not only establishing sugar cooperatives but even other agricultural cooperative societies such as cotton, bananas and vegetables. Similarly, tribes such as Chaudhari and Dhodia who top tribal hierarchical order have taken advantage of the prevalent situation. The mentioned social groups have become dominant and hegemonic forces in each sphere of the social, economic and political life and have established a firm stranglehold over all kinds of institutions in districts of Surat, Tapi, Navsari as well as Valsad of south Gujarat region.
As per one guesstimate every year around 1,75,000 seasonal migrant workers come to rural areas of south Gujarat region for harvesting sugarcanes. They move in teams led by brokers or mukadams. There are about 2,000 mukadams leading around 5000 such teams, which mean some of them are leading more than one team. As per one authentic estimate each team is consists of 15 koytas on an average, i.e. 30 grown-up workers.
Irrespective of age-group most harvesters have been in this livelihood option for a very long period. For instance, in the age group of 46 years and above more than 70 per cent of the harvesters have been doing this work for the last 16 years and out of them a large majority of 40 per cent is in this activity for the last 21 years. Similarly, in the age group of 31-35 years more than 75 per cent of harvesters have been working for more than 10 years. A significant proportion of workers are engaged in harvesting operation from childhood, i.e. below 14 years of age. For instance, if nearly 50 per cent of the harvesters in the age group of 21 to 25 years have indicated that they have been working for the last 6 to 10 years. O n an average, every team of 15 to 20 koytas has five children of school going age of 7 to 14 years and eight children below 6 years.
The statistical information gathered from source villages (data-set I) indicates the illiteracy level of a lower scale, i.e. around 55 % whereas more than onethird had reported education in the range of 1-7 standard. Interestingly, 70 per cent of adivasi harvesters consider themselves as Hindu in terms of religious identity whereas another 18 per cent of them identifying as Christian. Only 3 per cent of them reported that they are adivasis and do not follow any religion. The phenomenon of increasing proselytisation towards Christianity among tribals of Gujarat can be deciphered. The survey part of data-set IV clearly suggests a significant proportion of Christian harvesters (18 %).Most of them got married in their teenage, after crossing 16 or 17 years of age.
A mukadam on an average gives out an advance of 14115 rupees to each koyta that comes out to 240938 rupees per team. The mukadams received Rs. 45 per metric tonne (MT) of sugarcane harvested as their commission during the 2016-17 season, whereas the wages being paid were Rs. 238 per MT. In other words, the commission of mukadam was almost one -fifth of the workers’ wages. On an average the daily output per one unit of koyta is one MT. Which means that a team of 20 koytas will harvest 20 MT in a day. Assuming 120 workdays in a season, the total output for one team will be 2400 MT.
Calculating further, this will amount to Rs. 108,000 of profit over one team in a season for mukadams. To earn this profit, the mukadam has to invest a total sum of approximately 300,000 rupees, i.e. taking into consideration on an average advance sum of Rs. 15,000 each koyta. And he would get additional amount by way of 50 per cent interest on this total sum. Which means he will get additional Rs. 150,000 on a total advance of 3,00,000 rupees.
Even if we take into account the money being raised from other sources, such as money-lenders, factory employees and others, for which mukadams have to pay rate of interest of same order, the mukadam does get an additional profit apart from the amount of total commission which is around Rs. 25,000. Which is miserly compared to what other brokers make in similar vocations.
Slightly more than two-fifths of the harvesters have taken advance in the range of 10001 to 20000 rupees whereas for majority of 46 per cent cutters the amount of advance is less than 10,000 rupees and out of them more than onethird have borrowed between 5001 to 10000 rupees. The amount is in the range of 20001-30000 rupees for one-tenth koytas. Very tiny proportions of the koytas have reported not taking any advance. They all are from villages of Maharashtra. The amount of advance is not fixed and would vary from harvester to harvester as it depends on specific requirement of workers. It may go much higher as the chart too indicates.
Often to meet expenses pertaining to social occasions such as marriage and death rituals or health problem the harvesters borrow bigger amounts. The data indicates that the average amount of advance per koyta in the season of 2016-17 was Rs. 14,415. And while repaying they have to pay one and a half times of the advance taken. In other words, the interest rate is 50%.
The mukadams have to raise own funds to extend advance to koytas. It is estimated that a mukadam recruiting 50 koytas needs around 7.5 lakh rupees by the beginning of the season for advance. While they raise a small proportion of this amount from their own savings and other sources, they have to get the major portion, almost two-thirds of the required amount from the market, mainly moneylenders at the interest rate of 50%, the same they charge to koytas. The employees of the factories and persons with healthy financial status, too, impart their money to mukadams charging identical interest from them. Harvesting operation thus offers a section of people with sound economic condition earning opportunities.
More than half of the koytas could have earned wages in the range of 20001 to 30000 rupees whereas another 35 percent could have received 10001 to 20000 rupees. But when wages are paid to the harvesters by the mukadams outstanding debt in the form of advance given (with 50% interest) is subtracted. Add into that costs of cereals in the form of juvar and millet-bajri as well as of materials such astadpatri and plastic to erect makeshift habitat, which were given by the factories at the start of the season, were also deducted.
So in real terms, the net income of the harvesters is the amount they get after deduction of advance taken at the start of the season and also subtraction of other costs from the wages being earned based on harvesting work carried out. Almost half of the workers had negative balance in terms of amount received, i.e., they are in indebted state even after four to five months of tireless labour. The rest 50% of the workers could earn positive net amount in the range of 1000 to 30000 rupees after subtracting outstanding advance and other amount.
Around one-third of harvesters had earned in the range of rupees 10000 and less whereas the rest 15% could earn more than that and up to 30000 rupees. For one-third of the workers the amount of indebtedness is below 10000 rupees whereas among the rest 16 per cent, almost 7 per cent indicate negative net income in the range of rupees 20000 and above.
During informal conversations with local farmers it was revealed that the factories deliberately ask mukadams to bring their teams early to serve their twin purposes. Local farmers govern factories, and so their representatives are members of governing bodies of factories. The farmers want cheap labour for their agricultural-works. While the local halpatis agricultural labourers demand higher wages the migrant labourers provide a cheaper alternative. So one purpose of bringing the koytas much before harvesting season begins is to accomplish other agricultural works at a cheaper labour-cost. Another reason is stiff inner competition among factories with regards to snatching harvesters-gangs from each other through brokers.
*The study sponsored by the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation e.v. with funds of the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development of the Federal Republic of Germany. The Centre for Social Studies, Surat, provided critical inputs in design and writing of the study with the help of two consultations, Prof Kiran Desai and Sudhir Katiyar
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