The narrow lanes cutting through farmland are dotted with brick, wood and asbestos shanties. One in particular, located in Dhakephal village in Maharashtra’s Beed district, is lit by a single yellow bulb. It’s home to Swati Sriganga Ramdave, 24, and her family of seven.
Outside the house, Swati’s youngest daughter Aarohi, 4, tugged at her grandmother Gitabai’s sari, asking for money to buy a packet of chips from the local kirana before it closes.
“Here, go get one packet. The small one,” said Gitabai, unfolding a ten-rupee note from her blouse and handing it to her.
Money is tight in the Ramdave household. Swati works as a seasonal sugarcane cutter, one of over six lakh cane cutters in the Marathwada region of the state. From October to April every year, she migrates to western Maharashtra and Karnataka to cut and load sugarcane harvests for sugar factories. This has been her job since she was 15 years old.
Ever since the second wave of Covid hit rural Maharashtra, sugarcane cutters, who already live a hand to mouth existence, have been struggling to find opportunities for work and to keep their hearths burning. With seven other mouths to feed – three daughters, her parents, and brother – Swati has barely found any work in the last two months.
Seasonal sugarcane cutters are hired by local contractors, or mukadams. Koytas or those who work in pairs with their spouses usually get an advance payment of around Rs 50,000 before they migrate. Solitary workers, called ardhya koyta, get half that amount as advance.
They then migrate and work for six months to pay off the advance. During this period, they live in makeshift tarpaulin shelters during the winter months, often facing verbal and physical abuse from their contractors. Their work days start at dawn and end only when all the cane is loaded onto trucks after midnight.
Manisha Ghule, secretary of the Navchetna Sarvangin Vikas Kendra, an NGO in Beed, said migrant sugarcane workers were pushed out of their usual daily wage work during the lockdown. The lockdown in 2020 and this year began in March, she said, which is when the workers usually return home. Due to Covid, fewer people had migrated for work too.
“Beed is known as the district of sugarcane workers; seasonal migration takes place because it’s a drought-prone area and people have less land,” Ghule said. “But this time, fewer people went to work in the fields because of the lockdown, due to Covid. Daily wage work too has not been available due to the lockdown.”
Moreover, the pandemic brought along a slew of unseen challenges for such workers; during the first lockdown, over a lakh were as local administrations restricted their entries into villages amid Covid fears. Ghule added that workers were also forced to travel in inhuman conditions, isolate themselves in makeshift houses, and take care of the children who had travelled with them, often going for days without food.
Their return this year followed a similar pattern, owing to the lockdown imposed in the districts of the state in April.
For Swati, everything changed four years ago, when her husband Sriranga died in a motorcycle accident. She delivered her third daughter 15 days after his death. His death hit the family two-fold; his loss was compounded by the fact that Swati now had to work as an ardhya koyta, earning Rs 20,000 for six months of work.
Swati Sriganga Ramdave with her daughters Aarohi, Vaishnavi and Mamta.
She also was forced to return to the sugarcane fields soon after her husband’s death, since she’d already taken an advance from the contractor. She took her three daughters along, including newborn Aarohi, as she had nowhere else to leave them. “I would leave them under the shade of a tree nearby,” she said, “while I worked in the cane fields.”
In the six months that she spends at home, Swati works as a farm labourer in the fields.
But Covid and the subsequent lockdown changed that. Dhakephal saw 57 Covid cases till the end of May, and it was difficult to find work given the rampant fear of testing positive for the virus. Additionally, the lockdown led to reverse migration, with several people returning to their villages and helping their families with farmwork, rendering many farm labourers out of regular work.
“Work has reduced a lot now. It is just two to three times a week or sometimes not at all,” Swati said. “People don’t employ us because they are scared. So are we. A lot of people have died in our village; seven or eight people in May.”
Her brother is the other breadwinner in the family, since her mother is recovering from a surgery and her father has been unable to find work for months. Only her father has a ration card, ensuring just 15 kg of free ration that the government provided for the months of April and May. Swati lived in Osmanabad until her husband’s death, which is where her ration card was issued, disallowing the provision of free ration at her current residence. Now, when she gets occasional work in the fields, she sometimes asks her employer to pay her in wheat and rice instead.
The state government’s Sanjay Gandhi Niradhar Pension Scheme, under which widows like Swati are entitled to a monthly pension of Rs 600, might have cushioned her trials a little, if not much. But after submitting her documents to the gram panchayat for the second time months ago, she now awaits the disbursement of her pension.
Too many villagers across Beed tell the same story.
Just a few hundred metres from Swati's home, Sitabai Tateram Ghadge, 32, lives in a half-open shanty. She also works as a seasonal sugarcane cutter who is now back home for six months.
Sitabai last got work two days ago in a field 30 minutes from Dhakephal. She worked from 10 am to 6 pm for Rs 200. Meanwhile, she’s exhausted the Rs 40,000 that she received as an advance last October. Her monthly widow pension of Rs 600 only comes once in three months in random amounts of Rs 1,000-2,000.
Sitabai’s loss is intergenerational. Her father died when she was three years old so she began migrating for work as a teenager. She then lost her husband Tateram, who was also a sugarcane worker, to HIV in 2014. She now lives with her mother Sindhu Ghadge, 62, and her two children, studying in Class 8 and 10, respectively. Classes shifted online during the pandemic but with no smartphones, her children lost months of education.
“For my children, I now work double shifts in the cane fields so I can earn what their father would have brought home too,” Sitabai said, explaining that contractors will give you the full advance if you can do as much work as a pair. “But they hold you to it. You have to not only cut the crop through the day but also load it in trucks at night, which my husband would do.”
Cane cutters are not allowed to take a single day off during their six months of work; if they do, the contractor issues a fine or khada of Rs 600-700.
Sitabai (left) with her brother's daughter and her mother Sindhu.
“Whether it is rain or sun, fever or something worse, you can afford maybe a single day to see a doctor,” Sitabai said, adding that she has to work even while recovering from an illness or during menstruation.
Sitabai returned from the cane fields two months ago. Since then, she’s been scrambling to find work in the farms in her village. “The children of people from our village, who would otherwise work in cities, have come back in the lockdown,” she said ruefully. “Why would they call us to work on their land now?”
No government support
“I can’t do this anymore,” said Kusumbai Pandurang Parve, 55, drawing long, laborious breaths. Kusumbai has suffered from asthma for 15 years. “It gets difficult to just walk these days,” she added. “The thought of going again this year to cut and carry all that cane is so exhausting.”
Kusumbai and her husband Pandurang, 65, have worked as sugarcane cutters for 40 years. During that period, they managed to marry off three daughters and raised two other children, aged 18 and 20.
But the lockdown has left them exhausted. Kusumbai’s medication for her asthma is a task to procure now; the nearest public health centre is six km away from their home in Dhakephal with no public transport to get there. Kusumbai managed without her medication since the lockdown began in April but when her health worsened this week, Pandurang managed to make his way to the public health centre and back.
While old age has made the job of cutting sugarcane even harder, the pandemic has robbed them of employment opportunities in the village. With markets closed, some landowners have chosen not to cultivate their land this year, denying the couple of their usual work. Their Rs 50,000 advance from October was spent on food, medicine, clothes, and other household expenses. Pandurang complained about how he has been made to wait for decades for an insurance scheme for sugarcane workers.
Kusumbai Pandurang Parve and her husband.
The basket next to Kusumbai is their food for the day: chillies and spinach from a neighbour.
“Everyone is afraid of proximity, we neither get to work in their fields nor get water from their wells,” said Pandurang, whose house in the drought-prone district does not have a water pipeline. Along with work, the family’s access to their only source of water– their neighbours’ borewells – has also been disrupted by the pandemic.
“All our boxes of rations were empty this morning,” Kusumbai added. She gestured at a basket of chillies and spinach, given by a neighbour in return for her labour of plucking them in the field. This is their food for today, she said. They have no idea what they’ll do tomorrow.
Whatever little help they get is through ground efforts of NGOs. During the lockdown, Navchetna gave the sugarcane workers rations, water, clothes, and counselling for their mental health, apart from continuing with their pre-Covid programme of integrating them into self-help groups to help switch to another, more reliable livelihood. Some NGOs are currently planning to organise transport for better access to hospitals and vaccination centres.
According to Manisha Ghule, who has worked with more than 7,000 families, there is no separate government scheme or help for sugarcane workers; they make do with universal schemes like ration cards.
“Nobody gets support from the Ustod Kamgar Mahamandal, it is not implemented,” she said. “The people we work with have heard of the scheme, but it has not reached them.”
The Ustod Kamgar Mahamandal is a scheme that is intended to act as a safety net for sugarcane workers. Proposing benefits like an insurance scheme for cane cutters, provident funds, financial assistance, and medical aid to women sugarcane workers, it was supposed to be implemented by a committee called the Gopinath Munde Ustod Kamgar Kalyan Mahamandal, which was set up in 2019.
Newslaundry reached out to Keshavrao Andhale, the president of the committee, to ask what had happened. Andhale said the scheme had been “dismantled” after the state administration changed in 2019 and has therefore not been implemented.