Bitter Sugar: Cane Cutters Charter of Demands

Bitter Sugar: Cane Cutters Charter of Demands

This International Labour Day we need to focus on a highly discriminatory and exploitative form of labour that finds little or no mention and almost invisible yet not ceasing to exist as the question is of their survival. For them there is no respite to run away or “stop looking for jobs” as they are almost tied in the form of bonded labour. They form the back bone of the sugar supply chain and that makes it bitter.

Sugar industry’s current annual output stands approximately at Rs. 80,000 crores (approx. $10.5 billion USD) making it an important agro-based industry that impacts rural livelihood of about 50 million sugarcane farmers and around 0.5 million workers directly employed in sugar mills. Maharashtra is the second largest sugar producing state with 1.6 million farmers cultivate sugarcane on 0.7 million hectares of land. Maharashtra’s sugarcane industry provides direct employment to about 0.16 million workers, besides 1.5 million workers engaged in harvesting and transport operations every year for six months.

Maharashtra not only has the largest number of sugar mills in India (36%, UP has 23%), but also has the largest number of cooperative sugar mills in India. Social activist Vithalrao Vikhe Patil laid the foundation for the cooperative mills through a cooperative movement in 1948. This movement was a response to the plight of cane-growing farmers, who were trapped by landlessness, indebtedness and exploitative policies of private sugar mills.

However, the above didn’t translate to improved conditions of the sugarcane cutters who form a significant chunk of migrant labour in the sugar supply chain and are almost invisible. Over six lakh workers in the Marathwada region of Maharashtra mainly from district of Beed migrate to western parts of the state, and neighbouring Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh for six months between October to March to cut sugarcane. And they continue to live in appalling conditions.

To understand better, watch this video part 1 & part 2

We are working with sugarcane cutters in Maharashtra. Recently, we conducted discussions with cane cutters in 40 villages and came up with a Charter of Demands. This was then submitted to the tehsils and through them to the Chief Minister of Maharashtra Uddhav Thackeray. The Charter of Demand was personally handed over to Dhananjay Munde, Minister Department of Social Welfare and Special Assistance, Maharashtra Govt. said, “ We are ready to take action and for this we will hold a reflection meeting at the level of Ustod Corporation.”

What is in the Charter of Demands

The Charter enlists demands for better working and living condition of families of Ustod Kamgar (Cane Cutter) in Maharastra. The demands presented below are being expressed by the workers engaged in cane cutting, across 40 villages in Ahmad Nagar, Beed and Osmanabad Districts in Maharashtra. The key demands of importance were prioritised by diverse groups of community members including female and male members belonging to economically and socially disadvantaged section of the society.

A few of the demands are:

Provision of basic amenities for better working condition — These include proper safety kits for cutters, accidental insurance, cattle insurance, proper grievance and redressal mechanism, registration in e-Shram portal among other things.

Education for Children — These include compulsory anganwadi centres at the destination site, day schools and residential schools for children among others.

Making it Gender Responsive — Proper sanitation facilities for women, health benefits and facilities for pregnant and lactating mothers, effective implementation of Sexual Harassment at Workplaces Act and most importantly, equal wages.

Read complete charter here.

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