Conceding to demands of the Sugarcane Cutters and Transport Workers Union, the government in Maharashtra, India, has issued an order directing sugar factories and quarantine centers in the State to arrange for the transport of nearly 131,000 stranded sugarcane cutters back to their native villages, following a medical examination. While the order provides respite to migrant workers within the State, those stuck in other States have not been included.
Thousands of sugarcane cutters are stranded due the nation-wide lockdown imposed in India since March 24. Maharashtra is among the worst COVID-19-affected States in the country.
The order was issued by the government’s disaster management department on April 17, instructing all sugar factories in the State to prepare a list of workers along with their native villages, to be submitted to the concerned district magistrates (DMs).
Factories have been asked to make travel arrangements for the workers after they have been medically examined for symptoms of pneumonia, cough and fever. While the DMs are instructed to initiate the process, the factories are to bear the cost of transportation, along with the food and water requirements through the journey.
Factories have also been directed to intimate the police and local district authorities of their movement in advance, in order to facilitate the passage of vehicles through curfewed streets.
It further instructs the village heads to permit the migrant workers’ entry and to keep an official record of the same. The village heads are also required to issue a receiving report, to be submitted by the factories to the DMs, confirming that the workers have been transported back to their native villages.
Part-time agricultural workers
A majority of the stranded migrant laborers are also part-time farmers owning small plots of land in their native villages which are mostly farmed through family labor. In the lean season – for four to six months a year, usually between October and March – they are employed through contractors by sugar factories to cut sugarcane in nearby farms and load them onto trucks for processing at the factories. They usually return to their villages in the last week of March or early April each year, in time for harvest.
However, due to the sudden imposition of the lockdown since March 24, around 131,000 sugarcane cutters have been unable to return to their villages for the harvest season. Most are living in makeshift settlements around the sugar factories or on nearby farms, without pay and adequate rations.
Dr D. L. Karad, president of the Sugarcane Cutters and Transport Workers Union and vice-president of the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU)-Maharashtra wing, to which the former is affiliated, has warned that without ensuring their speedy return, the workers’ families run the risk of losing this year’s harvest.
Many who have attempted to travel back on their own have been stopped en route by the police and placed in quarantine inside schools and other such public buildings that are not in use during the lockdown period.
Poor condition of quarantine centers
21-year-old Ravi, one such migrant worker, was put in quarantine with five others in a room inside a school on the outskirts of Beed district in central Maharashtra. The school reportedly has ten such rooms, each shared by six people, with only three washrooms.
“We have to wake up at four in the morning to line up in queue to get a chance to use them,” Ravi told Peoples Dispatch. Despite being in quarantine and advised physical distancing, crowding outside the washrooms becomes inevitable, he claims.
Ravi has been at this make-shift quarantine center for over two weeks since April 3, after a police vehicle intercepted him and tens of other migrant workers from his native village Majalgaon, in Beed district, on board a tempo traveller.
They had traveled almost 300 kilometers from Walwa district where they were employed at the Dr. Nagnath Naikwadi Sugar Factory, a well-known co-operative factory established in 1981. The factory paid Rs.230 for each ton of sugarcane cut and loaded onto trucks by the laborers. Ravi had earned Rs. 20,000 last month.
While the factory continued to operate till the beginning of April despite the lockdown, as per Ravi, a majority of the sugarcane cutters were not provided masks and sanitizers. Fearing contracting the virus, he and others from Majalgaon decided to head back to their native village and boarded a tempo traveler on the evening of April 2. After a 12-hour journey, with only 70 kilometers left to reach home, they were stopped by the police early next morning and placed in quarantine in the nearby school.
Ravi also complained of not being provided enough food at the facility. “Breakfast arrives at eight in the morning, but not every day. There is no consistency in the quantity of food provided for lunch, which on many days is the first meal of the day. Very often, the parcels are too small,” he said.
He further suspected that the food supply may not be from the government. “They’re some sort of social servants or NGO people, I think. They say this is their contribution to us, and have pictures of themselves clicked while distributing food,” he claimed.
Nevertheless, he expressed hope that his ordeal may come to an end following the government order instructing those in-charge of such quarantine centers to arrange for the return of sugarcane cutters.
Migrant workers in other States
However, there seems to be little hope yet for migrant labor stranded in other States. 26-year-old Santosh Rathod, also from Majalgaon, is stuck on a farm in Ariyalur district in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, along with 500 to 600 other sugarcane cutters from Maharashtra.
All of them had been working on the same farm for the Kothari Sugar Factory, located over 40 kilometers away in Kattur village of Thiruvallur district. On March 26, they finished this season’s work for the factory and were set to head back home.
However, with no transport available for the over 1,000 kilometers journey back home, they have been forced to take shelter in makeshift tents erected using tarpaulin sheets provided by the factory. The rations provided by the factory are scarce, leaving only a small portion for each worker, Rathod said.
“Can you communicate a request to the Tamil Nadu government on my behalf?,” he asks, “I want to request them to make arrangements to transport us to Maharashtra. We have sowed sugarcane, wheat and some vegetables which need to be harvested now. But both me and my brother are here, and my parents are too old and weak to harvest by themselves.”
He fears that all the labor spent in cultivating these crops will go to waste if he does not make it back soon in time for harvest.
Meanwhile, Dr. Karad has said that once the order is implemented in Maharashtra, he will reach out to unionists in CITU-Tamil Nadu to help bring these workers back home.