What Sugarcane Farmers Want

What Sugarcane Farmers Want

Insights from the first multi-stakeholder dialogue on business and human rights issues pertaining to the sugar supply chain

While the farmers protest was still ongoing, the Uttar Pradesh government in the beginning of September 2021 rolled out a plan to expedite formation of Farmer Producer Organisation (FPO) and link the farmers to various government schemes. The small cane farmers present at the Oxfam India multi-stakeholder meeting held on 29 September in Meerut highlighted the need to ensure their participation in these FPOs. The meeting — a first, to discuss the business and human rights issues pertaining to the sugar supply chain — was attended by over 54 farmers (including women farmers), women from Self Help Groups (SHGs) and civil society members from Meerut, Saharanpur and Muzaffarnagar.

Among other issues discussed during the meeting was the growing burden of payment of wages to farm labourers, and the possibility of linking Government’s MGNREGA scheme with payment of wages to farm labourers in Uttar Pradesh as a remedial measure. According to the current market rates, a cane farmer is supposed to pay a farm labour a wage ranging between INR 300-400. If MGNREGA gets linked with sugarcane farming, then farm labourers would receive around INR 202 from this scheme while the remaining amount will be borne by the small farmer in question. Linking of MGNREGA would therefore (partly) relieve small sugarcane farmers from the burden of wage payment.

Participants also highlighted that the provision of a fixed compensation of INR 5 lakh, which is distributed by the state government at the time of any natural calamity to farm owners, often excludes farm labourers (who are working on a contractual arrangement).

The issue of gender-based wage disparity was also shared as a critical concern during the meeting. It was also acknowledged that women farm labourers should be made aware of the Sexual Harassment Act and imparted information on other safeguarding and remedial measures/provisions that are currently available for them.

In India, the sugarcane industry is often associated with perennial delays in payments by sugar mills to cane farmers. Although, as per recent media reports, 84 percent of the total sugarcane dues have been cleared in the state, the issue of payment delays was still considered one of the biggest and recurring problems by those present at the meeting. A clear demand from all cane farmers therefore indicate the immediate need to release payments by mills within 15 days of cane supply. Farmers also highlighted that owing to such delays in payments, small farmers are often inclined towards selling their cane produce to local private kolhus/cane crushers instead of bigger sugar mills. Payments to farmers are immediately released at kolhus unlike the mills. Farmers indicated that given the importance of kolhus, there is a need to make Minimum Support Price (MSP) applicable to these kolhus for the benefit of small farmers.

India being one of the largest producers and consumers of sugar, this commodity serves as an important agro-based industry that impacts lives and livelihoods of millions of sugarcane farmers and millions of workers employed in sugar mills. However, the entire sugar supply chain is rife with myriad forms of human rights violations. As a continuum to the Human Cost of Sugar study (that outlined several structural and operational issues in sugar supply chain), this meeting served as a critical entry point into engagement with small cane farmers and civil society actors of the state.

Going forward, Oxfam India will continue to address human rights issues in sugar supply chain focusing particularly on issues of small holder farmers and sugarcane farm workers in the state of Uttar Pradesh; and on migrant sugarcane cutters and mill workers in Maharashtra. In UP an added focus will be child labour and women and land rights issues and in Maharashtra sexual and reproductive rights issues of women migrant workers amidst the constantly changing India’s agricultural policy environment vis-à-vis introduction of the three recent Farm laws namely, The Farmers' Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, the Essential Commodities Act, and the Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Act.

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