Gujarat: Migrant Sugarcane Harvesters Are Forced to Work Through the Pandemic

While some harvesters were lucky enough to make it back to their villages, others are still living in crowded situations and working to ensure sugar production continues.

Anandbhai Desai had been watching harvesters walking through the fields and highways in groups, as he and his team of koytas (a pair of workers) continued to harvest sugarcane in the district of Bardoli, in rural south Gujarat.

Ever since he came to know of a lockdown enforced by the government due to a pandemic, he had been witnessing an exodus of harvesters returning to their villages. With every passing day, the numbers of the workers swelled, as they walked back with their families, carrying whatever belongings they could. The 40-year-old mukaddam (contractor) had been contemplating returning along with his team of harvesters (comprising of 32 koytas and their families), but he was hesitant – how could he leave without clearing accounts with the sugar factories?

Nearly 200,000 tribal seasonal migrant workers come to the plains of south Gujarat every year to harvest sugarcane from the surrounding regions. The workers are recruited by the sugar factories’ cooperative through the mukaddams. The mukaddams use cash advances to recruit workers, who have to pay back 1.5 times the advance after working for six months.

Harvesters at work. Photo: Anushka Rose

Since sugar has been declared an essential commodity, hundreds of thousands of sugarcane harvesters continued to work in the fields for 14 hours and more. Anandbhai heard the news on his phone about the need for people to keep distance, maintain hygiene and regularly wash their hands – but this advisory seemed futile to him, since he lives in a settlement that housed about 200 families, with no access to clean water and sanitation facilities, let alone health services.

On March 30 at 8 pm, Anandbhai and his team of harvesters and their families gathered few of their belongings and began to walk 120 km to their village in the Subir block, Dang district. Being aware of instances where workers had been heckled, harassed or even beaten up by the police for violating the lockdown, Anandbhai decided to inform someone from Subir about their journey.

At about 4 am, when Anandbhai and his workers stopped to take a break at Valod, he called Maheshbhai Parmar (an activist with the Majur Adhikar Manch), who lives in Subir and had already helped about 1,700-1,800 sugarcane harvesters and their families reach their villages scattered acrossDang. He assured Anandbhai that once their group of migrant workers reached the district check post, he would meet them in a pick-up truck. By the next evening, Maheshbhai had helped Anandbhai and 70 others reach Boodhi, their village near Subir.

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Anandbhai said that he was one of the very few workers who could reach his village with Maheshbhai’s help. There were still hundreds of thousands of harvesters from Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh in the fields, harvesting cane and unable to return home because the interstate borders have been sealed.

Maheshbhai, who has been working with the sugarcane harvesters for their rights and to organise them, said that after the lockdown was announced, he and the executive members of the district committee of the Majur Adhikar Manch presented a charter of demands to the district collector of Dang, in addition to the Mamlatdar’s and Block Development’s Office for Ahwa, Subir and Waghai. They demanded that the state and sugar factory management take responsibility for the workers and ensure that the harvesters cease work and return to their homes safely.

Outside the sugar factory at Bardoli. Photo: Anushka Rose

Maheshbhai said that the workers’ settlements, which are usually located outside the boundary of the village, often lack basic sanitation and water facilities. In the face of a pandemic where maintaining hygiene is of great importance, the harvesters and their families are at heightened risk of COVID-19 infection. The settlements, Maheshbhai explained, often housed hundreds of workers and their families in cramped spaces. Thus, the government’s advisory to maintain physical distance was impossible as long as the workers continued to work and stay at their workplace.

Anandbhai realised the gravity of the situation and threat of the pandemic when instances of villages barricading their perimeters to keep migrants out started rising. This made accessing water from the community hand pumps and wells impossible. Additionally, the harvesters would not be able to collect grains that the government is distributing through the public distribution system or through the panchayat’s office after being barred from entering the village.

In the meanwhile, a violent clash between the management of the Bardoli sugar factory and truck drivers took place on March 28, and cases were lodged against 83 truck drivers who refused to transport sugarcane from the field to the factories due to constant harassment by the police and the risk of infection. This further influenced Anandbhai’s decision to leave at night, discretely.

Anandbhai said that after he heard about how truck drivers were lathi-charged and locked up, he and his team decided to walk back to their villages after the days work. He added that it was better to rely on their fellow villagers, who might help them with food, rather than stay behind and expose themselves to the risk of the infection.

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Maheshbhai said that Anandbhai and 12,000 others were fortunate enough to return to their villages in Dang; there were reports of workers who were not allowed to return to their villages after having completed their work for Mahua sugar factory workers only because they had refused to work for the sugar factory in Bardoli that had been facing a shortage of labour due to the exodus. Thus, a majority of the harvesters were still working to cut hectares of the sugarcane standing in the fields.

In order to avoid disruption in production due to the exodus of harvesters, sugar factories had sent lorries to various villages across the Dang district to transport workers back to the fields. Maheshbhai said he was amazed at the apathy of the state that would not let workers get back home, but allowed the factory management to get lorries through the district borders to take the workers to harvest sugarcane amidst a lockdown. However, the harvesters of Subir refused to go back despite the repeated threats of non-payment for the season and subsequent loss of employment in the next season.

File photo of harvesters at work. Photo: Anushka Rose

Maheshbhai explained that since migrant workers are usually housed outside the village, they fall outside the purview of the PDS and the local panchayat. Unless they work, they do not receive their weekly allowance from the factory and are not be able to buy grains.

Anita Rathwa (from Centre for Labour Research and Action, Surat, an organisation that has been working with sugarcane harvesters since 2008) reported that she has been witnessing harvesters from Maharashtra and agricultural labourers from the local Halpati community being employed across factories to keep up with the shortage of harvesters. Many large sugar factories of Bardoli, Gandevi and Chalthan are employing harvesters from other sugar factories at a premium wage of Rs 300 per tonne as opposed to the usual rate Rs 238 per tonne.

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Maheshbhai said this was just further proof of social inequalities, “The production of sugar – an essential commodity – allows the management of sugar factories to compromise on harvesters’ right to survival against the threat of COVID-19. The cost of a spoonful of sugar is borne by the migrant harvesters, who continue to produce for a nation that is advised to stay home in the face of a pandemic.”

Names of respondents have been changed in order to ensure their anonymity.

Anushka Rose is Coordinator for Research and Documentation at the Centre for Labour Research and Action.