Every year more than two lakh Adivasis from the Maharashtra-Gujarat border region immigrate to work in sugar mills as sugar cane harvesters but without any benefits or salary scale.
Mitesh Vasava | TwoCircles.net
GUJARAT – Vikram Ramdas (28) works in a sugarcane harvesting field, Shree Narmada Khand Udyog in Gujarat. The only difference between him and a sugarcane farmer from Uttar Pradesh is that he is a victim of what might be called a modern form of slavery.
Ramdas from Talka Sakr village in Dhule district of Maharashtra is one of thousands of Adivasis whose several generations have worked as bonded laborers in the sugar cane harvest. Every year, more than 2 Lac Adivasis from the Maharashtra-Gujarat border region immigrate to work in the sugar mills as sugar cane harvesters.
Adivasi sugar cane harvesters commonly known as “Kyota” from different regions like Nandurbar, Dhule districts of Maharashtra and Dang district of Gujarat are hired to work in the cooperative sugar cane factories. The mills are owned by influential upper caste individuals who are affiliated with political parties.
‘Mukaddam’ is the person responsible for hiring workers from their place of origin. They got rich by supplying cheap laborers to the sugar mills. In most cases, the Adivasis take out loans from the Mukaddams of their villages at extremely high interest rates, up to 120% per annum. This makes it easier for the Mukaddam to recruit helpless Adivasis who want to earn money to pay their debt. Under a Mukaddam, there are more than 100 workers.
The whole working family is moved to the assigned sugar factory for 5-6 months away from home. Generations of an Adivasi family work in a sugar mill but are never able to pay the interest. It has created a cycle of debt and bonded labor over the years among the Adivasis of Dhule and Nandurbar of Maharashtra and Dang district of Gujarat.
Ramdas told TwoCircles.net that there are no job opportunities for the Adivasis and there is a complete lack of development in their home areas, forcing them to fall prey to the abusive practice of forced labour.
“We have no other choice left. There are no job opportunities in our native country. We have a small plot of land for farming, but we can only harvest this land during the monsoon,” he said.
Workers have to live and work in inhuman conditions.
Social worker Jayesh Gamit underlined the seriousness of the situation: “We have been fighting against the owners of sugarcane harvesting fields since 2015. We have demanded a government-led minimum wage for harvesters, basic facilities to live, fixed working hours and compensation. in the event of sudden death,” he said.
Gamit said the case is before the courts but the workers are suffering a lot. “The workers are very indebted because of the loans taken out with mukaddam. Their children are out of school. Even they end up working as child laborers in the fields,” he added.
“It’s all like a spider’s web, and it’s very difficult for anyone to get out of it. Things are changing but at a slower pace, but it’s happening under the nose of the government. And that’s the ‘one of the reasons why nothing changes,’ Gamit added.
Living in inhuman conditions
Ramdas said living conditions for bonded laborers are barely minimal in the sugar harvest fields. There was only one tap/hand pump for 600-700 workers. There is no sanitary facility. They defecate in the open. Drainage water is stored next to slums, increasing the risk of disease.
During the harvest season, children are likely to receive training to work in the sugar cane fields. Once they start working, they work without being paid. In some cases, they marry early to avoid sexual exploitation.
Ramesh Baiga, 37, who belongs to Nandurbar district in Maharashtra, works at Shree Narmada Khand Udyog. He started very early to work in the sugar cane fields.
“I started working in the sugarcane fields when I was a child. But to this day, I don’t know my earnings per season. I receive my income after cutting interest on a loan I had contracted with mukaddam. My three children work with me, but they do not receive any salary,” he said.
According to the CLRA study, adults toil 12 to 14 hours a day. The amount of advance paid by the muqaddams to the workers varies between Rs. 14000-15000.
The average daily wage for these workers is Rs. 119/day, which is well below half of the minimum wage for agriculture in Gujarat, which stands at Rs. 324 per day.
Only 20% of these bonded laborers are marginal landowners. More than 80% of workers are in the age group of 21 to 45 years.
Despite several attempts, the deputy secretary of the Gujarat labor department did not respond to calls from this journalist.
Mitesh Vasava is a SEED member of TwoCircles.net.