Structural injustice in Sugar Cane Agriculture

Structural injustice in Sugar Cane Agriculture

Sugar is one of the most important ingredients in a lot of the food consumed in India today. Even traditionally, the cultivation and consumption of sugarcane has shaped the livelihoods of millions dependent on it and this continues to be norm in the 21st century.

“Between the early-sixties and the mid-nineties, sugar consumption rose from about 2.6 million tonnes to about 13.0 million tonnes. During this period, annual per caput consumption increased from 5.3 kg to more than 14.0 kg.”

                                                                                    -Food and Agricultural Organisation

While traditionally, consumption of sugar was in the form of gur or khandsari, the dynamic saccharide has now become ubiquitous in the market place.

Where does sugar come from?

A majority of the sugarcane in India comes from Uttar Pradesh, which singularly accounts for almost half of the India’s sugar cane production. 2.54 million hectares of land in UP is currently being used for the cultivation of sugar cane (an increase of 12% from 2016-17). 37 lakh farmers and 2.96 crore farm workers contribute to the massive production process directly and the sum total of the persons dependent on sugar production comes up to 5.56 crore, in the state of Uttar Pradesh alone. 

Understanding the sugar production process

When a production of a good has millions of dependents on it, it becomes a societal moral imperative to ensure both, economic and social justice in the production process. Of the farmers in Uttar Pradesh, a majority of those dependent on sugarcane farming are small and marginal farmers. A recent Oxfam study found that for these farmers the cultivation of the crop is their primary source of income, and that 67% of marginal and 95% of small farmers rely on its production and sale to maintain their livelihoods.

It is in this context that, we analyse the sugarcane supply chain.

sugar industry

Structural problems

When we look at the nature of the problem we find that they are extremely structural, in that they are ingrained at various steps of the production process. Cane societies, that are responsible to forecast the production of sugar cane, are often understaffed thus affecting the forecasting process. For example, the production for the year 2017-18 was estimated at 353.22 MMT but post production harvest reaching up to 395 MMT due to a favourable monsoon and use of high yielding varieties of cane.

As high as 60% of farmers complain that their supply tickets quota is usually less than their actual produce by up to 150-220 quintals. This too, they claim, is a result of faulty surveys that cause them an economic loss of Rupees 48,000 to 72,000 per farmer, every year.

As a result, of the inaccuracies and delays in the supply of tickets 70% - 90% of the farmers, interviewed during the study said that they are often forced to sell the cane to local jaggery producing units at a lower price.

At the point of sale to the mills, 90% of the farmers interviewed said that had faced unfair weighing at the mills gates and collection centres, with 70% saying that even after the transaction; it took them nearly a year to receive their payments.

Beyond the farmers: Gender inequities and Child Labour

A look at farm workers through the lens of gender, shows that while male workers collect the minimum wage or an amount that is marginally better, women workers doing the same work are consistently paid below the minimum wage.

sugar industry

As high as 81% of farm workers are only being paid their daily wage 10-15 days after work. This adds to the burden of women workers who already receive a wage below the minimum.  

sugar industry

Sugarcane farmers quite often employs children for work. These children are brought in from states like Bihar, Chhattisgarh, and Madhya Pradesh to work in the fields, often with withheld or against advance paid to their families. Incidents of some farmers specifically recruiting children, due to their pliability and scope for exploitation, are also found prevalent.

Contextualising the waiver

Recently Uttar Pradesh government announced farm loan waivers with a Rs. 32,000 crore waiver being announced for all farm loans under 1 lakh. No doubt, this may seem like a temporary solution to the problem, but often times it does little to mitigate the structural problems with the sugar production process.

The problem with the waiver is that it continues to target farmers (and not agricultural labour) , instead of trying to resolve the larger injustices taking place in agriculture, and will continue to help certain large farmers, while excluding several small farmers for whom waiver amounts have been as low as 1 Rupee.

Dealing with the economic and social injustices in this production process, will take a lot more than a waiver, and will require the combined efforts of farmers, labour, the government and the private sector purchasing this sugar in bulk for use in their products. Until such a holistic approach is adopted, women, labourers and farmers, all run the risk of being caught in mire of a flawed and unjust production process.

Photo by Pooja Adhikari 

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