How sugarcane cutting has turned into a curse for people of Beed

With caste issues becoming the political trump card, issues like human trafficking, hysterectomies, farmer suicides and extreme poverty have taken a back seat.

WrittenBy:Prateek Goyal
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Seema (name changed) of Beed’s Motah village in Maharashtra was just 14 years old when she was married off to a 26-year-old man by her parents, who cut sugarcane for a living. After being abused and raped for a year, she ran away only to end up in the hands of child traffickers in Pune where she faced more abuse. Finally, at the age of 16, she was rescued. Seema now works as a nurse-aide in Pune. However, girls like Seema are among the lucky ones. Child marriages are the norm in Beed and as per conservative figures by activists, about 1,000 children and women are trafficked every year.

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Poll-bound Beed is a stronghold of late Bharatiya Janata Party stalwart Gopinath Munde. The Lok Sabha constituency has been ruled by the BJP since 2009—first by Munde himself and after his demise, by his daughter Preetam Munde. His elder daughter Pankaja is a minister in the Maharashtra state government, while Preetam is a sitting Member of Parliament from Beed.

In Beed, extreme poverty and seasonal migration of sugarcane cutters have meant deplorable living conditions for most people in the constituency. Neither the Congress nor the BJP governments have been able to improve people’s standard of living.

As Beed goes to the polls tomorrow, April 18, villagers feel that issues related to sugarcane cutting—an occupation of 60-70 per cent of the population—and water scarcity is still not an election issue for the politicians from the area. When Newslaundry visited Beed, it found bonded labour, water scarcity and related deaths, human trafficking, farmer suicides and poverty are rampant—and hysterectomies amongst the women due to their conditions of work.

In the upcoming general elections, the main battle is between Preetam Mundhe and Nationalist Congress Party candidate Bajrang Sonwane who is Maratha. Preetam’s elder sister Pankaja is relentlessly campaigning for her sister, while Sonwane is backed by Dhananjay Munde, leader of the Opposition and nephew of the late Gopinath Munde. Dhananjay who is a cousin of Pankaja and Pritam Munde left BJP in 2013 and joined NCP. However, instead of fighting the elections on basic issues, caste equations have become the primary issue. There are 20 lakhs voters in Beed, out of which 40 per cent are Marathas and rest comprises Vanjara, Muslims, Banjara and other communities.

Sugarcane cutting—a curse to live with

Despite having a marginal piece of land in their names, Beed farmers and their families are forced to migrate every season to work as sugarcane cutters in the sugar belt of Western Maharashtra, Karnataka, Telangana and some parts of Andhra Pradesh. Beed has the largest population of sugarcane cutters in Maharashtra. Out of the 10 lakh sugarcane cutters in Maharashtra, approximately half of them are from Beed. The only reason for migration is the continuous drought-like situation in the area. Despite having pieces of land, farmers are unable to cultivate anything due to water scarcity. Lack of alternative employment compounds the problem.

The process of hiring sugarcane cutters begins with the agreement between sugar factories and Mukadams, the middlemen who hire sugarcane cutters. These Mukadams get commissions from the sugar factories. It ranges from 15-25 per cent of the amount for which a couple is hired. Sugarcane cutters are generally hired in pairs—popularly known as jodi. A jodi is hired for a meagre sum ranging from ₹50,000-₹1 lakh for six months. They are expected to work for 12-18 hour shifts every day for the duration of their contract period. In case their work gets over before the contract period due to low sugarcane production, the couple will have to return a part of the advance amount to the Mukadams. In cases where the jodi is unable to return this money, they are held captive until the money is repaid.

While some couples bring their children with them, others leave their kids at home with the older folk. In such cases, children either miss out on education or become vulnerable to sexual abuse. Such situations often result in child marriages which, in turn, leads to marital rapes, elopement and human trafficking.

Speaking to Newslaundry, a person close to Seema said, “Her parents married her off when she turned 14. Even though her husband was almost 12 years older than her, it was their way of ensuring her safety. The marriage didn’t work out. She was subjected to marital rape repeatedly. Finally, she managed to escape from her husband’s home. However, she ended up with human traffickers who sold her to a Pune-based brothel. In the brothel, she was beaten and abused. She was there for four months. Eventually, she was rescued by the police.”

There are several other cases like Seema’s. In 2016, a girl from Gevrai was sexually abused by the three local boys of the village. Her parents had gone to work in the sugar fields of Western Maharashtra while she stayed behind with her grandparents in the village. A person close to the family said: “Some local boys took advantage of her situation and sexually abused her and got her pregnant.”

Girish Kulkarni, a social activist who has worked with human trafficking victims in Marathwada and other areas, said, “In a year, there are around 4,000-5,000 young girls who are sexually abused in Beed district and around 1,000 girls and women are trafficked every year. This condition is directly connected to the temporary migration of people. Many couples marry off their children early as they can’t take on the responsibilities of the kids while working in the fields. Child marriages also take place because parents feel that children will be protected in marriage. However, most of these child marriages fail. Young girls run away from their homes. Often they are trapped by human traffickers and end up as sex workers. As for children who stay back are often subjected to sexual abuse, as there is little to no supervision. The elderly cannot take care of them all the time due to age problems.”

Imal Dabhade, 60, of Vanjarwadi village has worked as a sugarcane cutter since she was 13. She told Newslaundry, “I started working as a sugarcane cutter after I got married. We have a piece of land but due to a scarcity of water in our area, we couldn’t cultivate it. Often we used to survive on two jowar rotis and chutney. Then I started working as a sugarcane cutter with my husband.”

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Women in Vanjarwadi village who underwent hysterectomies.

Dabhade says that in 1995, four people working together for six months used to get ₹5,000. “We used to work for 17-18 hours every day. Things haven’t changed now either. These days a couple makes anything between ₹50,000 and ₹1 lakh for a 6-9 month contract. This amount is not enough to survive.”

Among female sugarcane cutters of Beed, hysterectomies—the surgical removal of the uterus—is common. Continuous work in sugarcane fields, including during menstruation, makes the women susceptible to infection.

Women of Vanjarwadi who underwent hysterectomies

Newslaundry met 15 women of Vanjarwadi who have undergone a hysterectomy. They said they don’t know the exact reasons for the infections but most of them feel that working in the sugarcane fields may have led to it.

Mangal Pawar, 42, told Newslaundry, “I underwent a hysterectomy more than 10 years ago. I went to the doctor because my stomach was aching. He told me that I had to undergo an operation. I was scared when I came back. But after a week, I got operated.”

Gunabai Arudi, 55, has a similar story. She said, “I went to Sanap Hospital with abdominal pain. The doctor told me to undergo an operation. My uterus was removed.” Both Pawar and Arudi were operated upon in Sanap Hospital. In 2012, the hospital’s owner, Dr Madhav Sanap, was arrested by the police for illegal abortions and female foeticide.

Sumita Yadav, 35, is a woman farmer who went under hysterectomy 10 years back. She said, “I was having white discharge. I went to Dhoot Hospital and was told that I have to undergo an operation. After the operation, I developed a constant backache.”

According to recent media reports cane cutting contractors are not eager to hire women who are menstruating. This has led to large-scale hysterectomy operations in Beed. However, the 15 women that Newslaundry spoke with denied undergoing hysterectomies because of Mukadams’ unwillingness to hire menstruating women.

Archana Dhoot, a gynaecologist in Beed’s Dhoot Hospital who has conducted hysterectomy operations, said, “I have conducted hysterectomies for women who suffer from infections. These women work very hard in sugarcane fields, including during menstruation. They develop these infections because of unhygienic conditions.”

Women and children talk about the water problem in Vanjarwadi.

Bapu Gangadhar, 30, of Vanjarwadi went to Chikkodi in Karnataka with his pregnant wife Sangeeta for sugarcane cutting this year. They received ₹1 lakh as advance but due to low production, their work finished in four months. Now they have to return ₹30,000 to the Mukadam. Sangeeta said they had no option but to take to sugarcane cutting. “In Beed, we don’t have any employment opportunities, whether sick or pregnant we have to work. We have to cut at least three quintals of sugarcane every day.”

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Bapu Gangdhar with his wife Sangeeta.

In 2013, 35-year-old Chandrakant Razalkar of Sirasmarg village died while working in a sugarcane field in Kolhapur. A year after his death, his son, who was suffering from a heart ailment, also passed away as his wife didn’t have enough money for their son’s treatment. Sharda Razalkar told Newslaundry that she had stayed back to take care of their daughter. “The villagers who were with him told me that he had gotten up at five in the morning; as he went to urinate he collapsed. He was taken to a local hospital, where he died.”

Thirty-six-year-old Lahnu Pawar hails from Sathewadi village. He has worked as a sugarcane cutter for the last 20 years. “We get up at 3 am and work till 3 pm. These are fixed hours. Many times, the work gets extended to 7 pm. A couple has to work for at least 12 hours and cut at least three tonnes of sugarcane.”

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Lahnu Pawar with his Anita and mother Sushila Pawar in Sathewadi village.

Pawar said a couple gets ₹226 a day for cutting a tonne of sugarcane.

Anita Pawar, 28, said, “Generally all couples bring their newborns with them and leave the older children with their grandparents at home. But our job is such that it becomes difficult for mothers to even feed their kids. Our body doesn’t produce enough such that we can feed them. Often our kids are malnutritioned because of this.”

Lahnu’s mother, 55-year-old Sushila Pawar, said it’s been five years since she worked in the fields. “I worked in sugarcane fields since I was 15. Cane cutting is strenuous work and women have to bear its brunt. It affects our health; after a certain age, many women develop infections and have to get their uterus removed. The main reason for this is working during our periods.”

The Pawar family has three acres of land but due to the drought-like situation, they have been unable to cultivate anything.

Little water carriers

It’s not an uncommon sight to see young children carrying pots of water on their heads in Beed. These children walk about two or three kilometres to fetch water.

Sixteen-year-old Poonam Kale from Sirasmarg village spends three hours every day fetching water because the well is a distance from her village. Kale told Newslaundry that water tankers usually come once in two days to fill the well.

Rohini Mahapare, 15, is a Class 9 student from the same village. She said, “Sometimes we have to go as early as 4 am to get water. We get only two pots of water from the well.” Conditions are expected to worsen as the summer approaches.

In 2016, eight children from Beed died while fetching water. The death of a 12-year-old girl due to a heat stroke had raised alarms about the water problem and the deaths of children. Parmeshwar Adagale, a local activist living in Telgaon area of Beed, said the deaths of children fetching water is an annual affair in Beed. “At least 3-4 children die annually as they fall into wells. This year, two brothers aged eight ( Jaydev Rathod)  and five (Avishkar Rathod) of Chinchala village died after their bullock cart toppled over while they were coming back after fetching water.”

There are no arrangements by the government to improve the situation, Adagale added.

Leaders aren’t interested in small villages

Beed goes to polls on April 18. So far, none of the BJP-Sena and Congress-NCP alliance candidates have visited Sathewadi village. On their part, the villagers don’t care about political visits because they believe that candidates will not bring any change to their lives, even if they win.

Girdhar Ombe, 60, a resident of Sathewadi village which has a population of 1,400, said, “We are suffering from so many problems. Water is a huge problem for the area but when representatives are not coming to hear our problems, not even at the time of elections, then there is no scope that they will come here ever after winning elections.”

Ganesh Mane, 35, said political leaders aren’t interested in small villages “They don’t know how many problems we face. At least 70 per cent of the farmers of our village have not received a loan waiver despite giving instalments regularly. Defaulters’ loans have been waived off but those who are paying regularly have not been given a waiver.”

Bhagwan Mane, a 32-year-old farmer, said, “It’s been over a year since 80 people of our village sold tuwar (pulses) to the National Agricultural Cooperative Marketing Federation of India (NCCF) as market prices were lower. Over a year has passed but we have not received our payment which is about ₹5 lakh. Farmers in Marathwada have committed suicide for a loan of less than ₹50,000. For us, even ₹10,000 is a huge amount.”

Prakash Dotre, 27, completed his Diploma in Education in 2010. Nine years later, no vacancies have been listed. “Now I work in my farm, but because of the water shortage, we don’t have decent production. Eighty per cent of the people in our village have become sugarcane cutters as they don’t have any options. It’s a vicious cycle once you are a part of it.”

The issue of crop insurance

Farmers in Beed do not have crop insurance. While many of them are victims of discrepancies in the newly-introduced online procedure, others can’t afford the premium because the Pradhan Mantri Fasal Bima Yojana (PMFBY) has given tenders of insurance premium to private/ public sector companies. The PMFBY was introduced in 2016 after Narendra Modi closed down the Rashtriya Fasal Bima Yojana, which had been introduced by Vajpayee in 1999.

Dr Udhav Ghodke, a doctor who runs Shetkari Putra, an organisation working for the welfare of farmers in Beed, explained, “Earlier, two government agencies—National Insurance Company and Agriculture Insurance Company of India—provided crop insurance to farmers. In 2016, with the advent of the PMFBY, private insurance companies like United India, Reliance, Oriental and others were given tenders to allot insurance. These companies have started collecting a premium from farmers (two per cent on kharif, 1.5 per cent on rabi per one hectare every year). Other than the premium amount deposited by farmers, state and central government also pay premiums. The whole amount is being given to these private companies.”

Ghodke explained that earlier, this policy was under the bank. Now it’s run by a common service run by the Central government under which online forms are filled in every village. “There are many shortcomings in the government portal because of which farmers are facing problems. The government portal doesn’t accept names if your name is incorrectly written in the Aadhaar card. This is a common problem in villages,” he said.

Ghodke also said that although the premium is given to private companies, the whole procedure is done by the government. “Even the inspection of yield is done  by the revenue department, agriculture department and Panchayat department.”

“When every work, including premium, is done by government and farmers then why are private companies getting the benefits?” Ghodke asked. “ln 2017, a premium of ₹538 crore was collected in Beed. About ₹64 crore premium was given by farmers, the central and state government gave ₹237 crore each. But out of this, only ₹263 crore premium has been distributed to farmers. The remaining ₹275 crore is still with private insurance companies. Why was this not given to the farmers?”

Rajendra Dhotre, a farmer activist working in Beed, said, “Crop insurance and the discrepancies with its online format is a huge problem faced by farmers. This is a drought zone and they are getting crop insurance even after putting in the money for insurance. Only other source income is sugarcane cutting which gives them peanuts despite the hard work. In such situations, farmers lose hope and end up taking their lives.”

Do politicians care?

Milind Awhad, a professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University and director of the Rural Development Centre in Beed, said, “All mainstream parties including the BJP, Congress or NCP who fight elections need to recognise the requirement of work on baseline issues. It means they should take care of public issues such as the issue of sugarcane cutters, minimum wages for labourers and issues related to migration. Basically, they should take up issues that affect the public, but mainstream politics revolves around caste arithmetic.”

Gammat Bhandari, a renowned journalist in Beed, said the BJP and NCP haven’t addressed public issues. “Despite facing continuous drought, people are trying to survive.” He also said sugarcane cutters are exploited by Mukadams. “Once the advance is paid, they treat them like slaves. Even if sugarcane cutters do not want to work and return the money, he will be hounded by the Mukadams. There have been incidences where the daughters and wives of such sugarcane cutters have been raped,” the journalist added. “To prevent sexual abuse of children, vastishalas (hostels) have been made for kids, but 90 per cent of these vastishalas are owned by politicians. Even though the budget for these vastishalas are ₹75 crore barely ₹10 crore is spent.”

He added: “Maximum cases of abortion, hysterectomy and mouth cancer take place among sugarcane cutters. Abortion happens because of sexual exploitation. After 2-3 abortions and the working conditions in sugarcane fields, women develop infections which finally lead to the removal of uteruses.”

Speaking about the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, Bhandari said, “Nobody is like Gopinath Munde. His daughters Preetam and Pankaja are not active like him. They just reap political benefits of their father’s legacy. Bajrang Sonawane, the NCP candidate, has not worked much in the area either. In this election, caste is going to be the biggest factor. Both candidates are playing caste-based politics.”

Instead of getting any help from political leaders they are getting false promises, Bhandari added.

Newslaundry repeatedly tried to contact Munde and Sonwane the two leading candidates, but they were unavailable for comment. The story will be updated as and when they respond.

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