This sugar season, around 3 lakh new unorganised workers have been added to Maharashtra’s casual labour force that works during the crushing season.
Several farmers in the state who have been affected by the untimely monsoon and poor crop have decided to cut cane this season, Srirang Bhange, state secretary, Maharashtra Ustod Kamgar Vahtuk Majoor Sanghatana, which looks into issues related to sugar workers, said. Some 15-16 lakh casual labourers will cut cane this season.
“Almost every district that cultivates cane has seen a rise of around 30,000 workers. The maximum number of around 5 lakh workers
has come from drought prone areas and areas reporting crop failure, including Vidarbha, Marathwada and Beed regions. They have been forced into this for survival,” he said.
As a result, the bargaining power of the workers this year has reduced and contractors are not willing to give advances to them since several new workers are willing to work without any advance, he explained.
Significantly, the workers who had threatened to agitate before the start of the season went back on the decision since the organisation is affiliated to the BJP that has come to power in the state. Bhange said he was hopeful the new government would resolve the issue.
Under normal circumstances, around 12-14 lakh workers in the state are dependent on the sugar sector for livelihood. Bhange said the workers who cut cane for a living are due for a wage hike and should get the same wages as the payment given by factories to harvesters.
“At present, workers receive wages of R190 per tonne while payment for harvesters is around R450 per tonne,” he added. A couple of workers can cut up to 2 tonne of cane a day while a harvester can cut up to 60 tonne per day. Sugar factories are now increasingly opting for harvesters since manual labour has become an issue. The number of harvesters has gone up to 192 from 126 in the last season.
Farmer organisations have also begun to take up the cause of the workers. The Raghunath Patil-led Shetkari Sanghatana has demanded a first cane installment of R3,500 per tonne for farmers at the start of Maharashtra’s sugar season of 2014-15.
“Our organisation has demanded a cane price of R3,500 per tonne and the final decision regarding the course of agitation will be taken after the first meeting of the Cane Price Board on November 15,” Patil told FE.
Patil will meet other like-minded leaders, including MNS chief Raj Thackeray, in Mumbai on November 16 to chalk out the future strategy of the organisation.
Patil, who is also on the Cane Price Board along with two other farmer leaders, Raju Shetti of Swabhimani Shetkari Sanghatana (SSS) and Vitthal Pawar of the Sharad Joshi-led Shetkari Sanghatana, says he will prefer to wait for the outcome of the Cane Price Board before arriving at a final decision.
Speaking to FE after the organisation’s annual meet at Karad, he said his organisation had also demanded the same wages for casual workers as the amount given to harvesters by sugar factories.
Interestingly, all three farmer leaders are part of the newly formed Cane Board which has been established to take decisions on linking cane prices to income of sugar factories.
Patil has tied up with Raj Thackeray this year while SSS is now a BJP ally. Shetti, who has demanded a first installment of R2,700 per tonne, says his organisation will continue to fight for the rights of farmers. However, there has been a split in his organisation with the new faction, called Baliraja Shetkari Sangatana, accusing him of playing into the hands of sugar factories.
While Patil has threatened to stop the sugar factories from functioning, Vitthal Pawar says his organisation is in favour of continuation of crushing operations. “Stopping crushing at this juncture will affect the productivity of the state and therefore we are not in favour of any agitation,” he said.