Sugar’s Bitter Truth: No Contracts, No Fair Wages, No Healthcare For Migrant Workers As Climate Risks, Accidents Rise

01 May 2023 15 min read  Share

Without medical insurance, without formal documentation as contract workers, with neither the labour contractor nor the sugar factory liable to follow any labour laws in their relationship with them, a rapidly growing number of about 800,000 sugarcane labourers in India's richest state economy are vulnerable to more frequent accidents, climate-related health risks and unforeseen healthcare expenses, work and wages lost to these events. Their plight is representative of about 100 million Indian migrant workers, their struggles to get by increasing in an age of inequality and inflation.

Renuka Pawar of Vaijapur, Aurangabad district, lived from November 2022 through March 2023 in a tent of bamboo, straw and cloth, near Ambad in Jalna, with her two children and her husband. They were 300 km from their native village./ PHOTOGRAPHS BY KAVITHA IYER

Beed (Maharashtra): When Prabhakar Bhagyawant was rushed to a hospital in Bagalkot in north Karnataka, bleeding profusely from a gash that ran from the top of the cranium to his right eyebrow, his biggest worry was not that he might die, 350 km away from home. 

For the migrant sugarcane harvest labourer who had accepted Rs 150,000 as advance payment from a labour contractor, the anxiety that set in was about the 45 work days he would eventually lose. In March, four months later, the disquiet persisted. 

“I worked off only about Rs 1 lakh,” Bhagyawant, 39, told Article 14

With the cane-cutting season closed, the landless labourer from Sangam village in Dharur taluka of central Maharashtra’s Beed district will now owe Rs 50,000 to the mukadam, the labour contractor, when next year’s advances are paid out, not to mention Rs 25,000 in medical expenses for imaging scans and a week’s stay at a private hospital, also to be deducted from his pay. 

The accident took place while he was at work in a clearing amid cane fields, where he fell nearly 20 feet from the top of a tractor-trolley loaded high with harvested sugarcane, a little short of a two-storey building. He received 30 stitches. Neither the factory, one of Karnataka’s larger sugar units, nor the mukadam offered to pay  the hospital bill, he said.

Without medical insurance, without formal documentation as contract workers, with neither the labour contractor nor the sugar factory liable to follow any labour  laws in their relationship with them, Bhagyawant is among a rapidly growing number of Maharashtra’s cane labourers vulnerable to more frequent accidents, climate-related health risks and unforeseen healthcare expenses, work and wages lost to these events. 

The cane harvest workers of India's richest state economy represent the worsening state of India's 100 million migrant workers who travel hundreds of kilometres to find work, driven in recent months by low rural wage growth, negated by higher inflation (see here and here), and continuing unprofitability in farming. 

These seasonal and circular migrants arrive in an informal labour market bereft of social security, a system that reinforces growth and profitability for employers. 

In India, where income disparity between those at the top and bottom of the pyramid is wide, these labour market characteristics of informalisation and absence of security for migrant labourers compound their vulnerability.

“These accidents further aggravate the poor condition of the state’s oos-tod kaamgaar (sugarcane harvest labourers),” said Krishna Tidke, the Beed district president of a Bharatiya Janata Party(BJP)-led union of harvest workers, transporters and labour contractors. 

“Legally they are not factory workers, plus most belong to traditionally oppressed castes and lack the ability or awareness to demand their rights,” said Tidke.

Industry Grew, But No Rights For Harvest Workers 

The Indian sugar industry has an annual turnover of more than Rs 80,000 crore, according to the government's think tank, the NITI Aayog. After Brazil, India is the second largest producer of sugar in the world.

As area under sugarcane farming grew, assured prices for sugarcane farmers through a state-mandated ‘fair and remunerative price’ (FRP) more than doubled since 2009. The FRP insures sugarcane farmers; cane prices are significantly higher than other crops; and the mills are an assured buyer without a middleman.

Meanwhile, Maharashtra’s 800,000 sugarcane harvest workers, traditionally migrating from the Marathwada region to the cane-growing areas of western Maharashtra, now also migrate as far as Karnataka and Uttar Pradesh for the  annual harvest season, living five to six months of the year 300-700 km from their native villages. 

Of India’s 700-odd installed sugar factories, about 200 are in Maharashtra, where a very large percentage of cane harvest workers belongs to a single district, Beed, in the water-scarce central region of Marathwada. 

As farm incomes tottered through years of cyclical drought and crop loss, the cane workers’ migration swelled, as they explored livelihoods in cane-growing regions farther away. 

The workers continue to be employed and paid under a traditional system called an uchal (literally translated as a ‘lifting’) or advance payment in lump-sum given to a unit of labour called a ‘koyta’ (the scythe used to cut cane stalks), the name given to a husband-wife couple working in tandem.  

The system works akin to debt bondage, though the latter was outlawed through  the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, 1976. 

Uchals for a koyta now range between Rs 60,000 and Rs 100,000 for a season, which workers must then work off at an average rate of Rs 300 per tonne—or nearly 330 tonnes for an advance of Rs 100,000 to be harvested over a crushing season of 120-150 days. 

That is 2.2 tonnes to 2.75 tonnes of cane per day, sliced close to the earth, foliage removed by hand, stalks bundled and lifted manually on bullock carts or tractor trolleys. 

It is hard labour, and work days often begin in the darkness of the pre-dawn hours, so that factories have fresh cane harvested, transported and waiting at all times.  

For those like Bhagyawant, who lose work days during one season, the subsequent season holds an uneasy promise, of as much work for a much more meagre uchal

That Bhagyawant has travelled to Karnataka for the harvest for 20 years, with the same labour contractor for a decade, did not improve his working conditions.   

In  2019, acknowledging that cane workers lacked any form of social security such as pension, provident fund, medical insurance or ex gratia payments for workplace casualties, the government of Maharashtra set up the Gopinath Munde Oos-tod Kamgar Mahamandal, a corporation dedicated to the welfare of cane harvest workers.   

It was a pre-election move, the September 2019 announcement came with only weeks to go for elections to the state assembly. Keshavrao Andhale, a BJP leader from Beed, was declared its chief, but no schemes or programmes could be launched immediately. 

Since then, with three different political combines assuming charge of the Maharashtra state government one after another, the only significant addition to the corporation was the inauguration of a state-level office in Pune. 

For the financial year 2023-24, the state government has proposed a budgetary allocation of Rs 85 crore for “financial assistance” for the corporation. 

In Beed, the collector’s office started a drive to register cane workers, but nobody is certain what ameliorative schemes may be on the anvil, though thousands have signed up.

The Long Consequences Of A Cane Worker’s Death

In November 2020, Adinath Sonawane, in his thirties, died in a road accident in Pune district after his motorbike was hit by a truck. So did another worker, as three of them returned to the cane fields from the factory. 

Adinath had been a cane worker for nearly 15 years, said his brother Balu Sonawane, who was himself working on the cane harvest in Sangli district. 

As  Adinath’s wife Parvati and their son Vivek returned home to Georai taluka in Beed, 250 km east of Pune, their bullocks, their little tent-home in the fields called a kopi and all its belongings were locked away by the factory.      

The loss of an adult male in his prime working years augurs an income loss to families of cane workers that persists for years, said Balu. Adinath’s wife Parvati, one half of the koyta, is no longer hired by cane contractors, and has tried to find work locally. 

The day wages for work is Rs 200 per day, sometimes cleaning harvested bajra (pearl millet), sometimes de-weeding fields, depending on the season. 

“The problem is that work is not always available,” said Parvati. “I may find work two or three days in the week, less in the off season.”

Through the intervention of Tidke and other politicians, the Sonawanes received a sum of Rs 225,000 in 2021 from the factory, as well as the belongings they had left behind. 

According to Tidke, all sugar factories in Maharashtra deduct a small percentage of labour charges per tonne of harvested sugarcane towards a fund for a relief payment in cases like Adinath’s, but in most casualties or debilitating accidents, workers are unable to raise a claim or follow it up.   

The Sonawanes belong to Chaklamba village in Beed district’s Georai taluka. 

In 2019, twice in the span of six months, residents of Chaklamba undertook a relay hunger strike, the second time at the height of the summer. 

Groups of villagers sat under a flimsy cotton tent in midday temperatures touching 43 degrees C, hoping to draw the attention of local government officials to their demand for a  sub-canal from the Jayakwadi dam across the mighty Godavari. 

Located only 40 km north in neighbouring Aurangabad district, the Jayakwadi’s waters could offer them a possible second crop in the year, and Chaklamba’s residents had twice petitioned the state government’s water resources department since 2016, to no avail.

The Sonawanes own about 2 acres of rainfed land, said Balu. “That’s nowhere near enough,” he said, explaining why his family migrates every year for the harvest. “Tyachashivay paryay nahi (there is no alternative),” he said. 

With his elder brother gone, his nephew will join the migrating workers and, as soon as he is married and forms a koyta with his bride, will also accept an uchal.  

More Cane, More Migrant Harvest Workers 

Machhindra Gawde, in his seventies, a former Shetkari Sanghatana activist, led both hunger strikes in 2019 in Chaklamba, as well as a previous one in 2017, and also several delegations to various irrigation department officials, each time asking for irrigation facilities for the dryland farmers of the region.     

“Irrigation in Beed has grown a lot in the last three-four years through small water-retaining structures,” Gawde told Article 14

That has not dented the number of people migrating for the sugarcane harvest. There is more cane now, he reasoned, so more work available. 

Between 2015-16 and 2021-22, area under sugarcane in Maharashtra grew from 987,000 hectare to 1.23 million hectare.   

“The dangers are greater, but the lump-sum would appeal to anyone,” Gawde said. “Anyway,  migrating to harvest sugarcane is better than trying to make profits as a farmer.”          

Recurrent years of drought, followed by years of excess rain, ill-timed rains before harvest season and hailstorms, combined with fluctuating prices of agricultural commodities, have left more and more small farmers willing to travel for work, including on the cane harvest.  

Earlier, it was mainly the Vanjari caste (listed as a nomadic tribe in Maharashtra), that undertook this work. “Now even Marathas join the sugarcane migration.”  The Marathas are traditionally a land-owning and politically well-represented caste. 

In the 2021-2022 season, at least a dozen sugar factories in Maharashtra continued crushing operations for 160 days, well over the average, and some well into June 2022, on account of excess sugar cultivation. (The 2022-23 season has witnessed a small dip in comparison, with most workers heading home in March and April.)

An enumeration will be central to designing welfare schemes, said Mohan Jadhav, the Beed district representative of the Left-affiliated Centre of Indian Trade Unions’ (CITU)  cane workers’ unit. While the registration of cane workers has picked up pace over the past few months, said workers and leaders, tens of thousands are still to sign up. 

In September 2022, about 1,000 cane harvest workers gathered with banners and slogans outside the office of the sugar commissionerate in Pune city, demanding the implementation of proposed residential schools for children of migrant cane workers and other plans discussed by the state welfare corporation formed in 2019. They demanded that the schemes be rolled out before the annual migration in October-November. 

“Nobody was surprised that it did not happen,” Jadhav told Article 14. “Three years after it was formed, months after an office was inaugurated, another harvest season went by with nothing actually implemented.”  

Balu Sonawane said he had registered, but was still to receive the promised identity card that would establish his status as a sugarcane harvest labourer.                

Accidents On The Rise Among Cane Workers 

“There are road accidents almost everyday around the sugar factories now,” said Balu. “There are speeding vehicles on the new highways, and there are also bullock carts and tractor-trolleys.” 

Workers often go to and from the factory before sunrise or after sunset. 

On 16 March 2023, a head-on collision took place between two trucks, one of them carrying cane harvest workers returning home to Jalna district, on the Majalgaon-Telgaon highway in Beed. Nearly 20 workers were injured, four of them seriously.  

The accident took place only about 10 km from the spot where a bullock died in 2021 after a speeding tempo hit a cane worker’s bullock cart, according to locals.  


In December 2021, a woman from Beed city accompanying her husband as a cane worker 300 km south-west in Khanapur taluka of Sangli district in western Maharashtra drowned in a pond as she tried to fetch water. 

The same month, Tidke visited a family whose sole earning member died in a tractor accident while harvesting cane in Paithan, Aurangabad.  The previous month, a teenage girl from Beed’s Shirur Kasar taluka who was accompanying her cane worker parents had drowned in a well. 

“Snake bites, road accidents, lightning strikes, drowning cases, nowadays there is one or the other case every day during the harvest season,” said Tidke. 

Without resources for the best medical care, fatalities are common even where victims are rushed to hospitals.    

In December 2022, three women workers and two children died after their tractor fell into a canal in Solapur.     

 A two-year-old died and four were injured when their sugarcane tractor-trolley overturned on the Yeola-Manmad road in Nashik district in northern Maharashtra in April 2022. 

‘Burning In The Heat, Or Drenched To The Bone’

Near Ambad in Jalna district, about 75 km north of Beed city, 30 cane harvest workers were still in their camp in end-March, completing the harvest of the last of the region’s cane.  


It was the last few days of work before they would pack their belongings and set out for home in Vaijapur, 300 km north in Aurangabad district. 

“It rained all evening one day last week,” said Manda More, stirring a fiery-looking curry on a wood hearth outside a 5 foot-tall tent fashioned with a few bamboo poles, straw, a stretch of cloth, old sarees and a discarded sheet of a fabric banner. 

This ‘kopi’, her home during the five or six months that she is working on the harvest, was nearly washed away by the downpour, she said. “All the kids were coughing and feverish for days.”

Nobody went to a doctor, for the men were away through most of the day, and there is no transport available unless a man borrows a motorbike to take them.  


“Some days it’s so hot that our skin burns,” said Renuka Pawar, More’s daughter who was at the same camp with her own little boy and girl.  “And then on other days we’re completely drenched, with all our food and our clothes and our children.”  The weather has been increasingly unpredictable, and extreme, in recent years, Pawar said. 

She was amused at being asked if better housing for migrant cane workers could improve their lives. “We’ve lived like this for generations,” she said. Her youngest, only a few months old, lay asleep in an old saree fashioned into a cradle, knotted to the bamboo poles of the kopi.   

Many families at the small camp said they experienced rising indebtedness on account of climate-related damage to their crop. Most tried to form an additional koyta at home—to earn an additional uchal— by finding a bride for a son. 

“We had loans, so we needed the money,” said Alka Wagh, preparing to take a packed lunch to the field along with her 17-year-old daughter-in-law. The girl was married just months before the migration for the harvest. She had dropped out of school after Class 7, and her family accepted the Rs 15,000 bride price the Waghs paid.  


Alka, her husband, her son and the teenager were two koytas for hire, and managed to negotiate a total lump-sum advance of Rs 2 lakh. They stayed until the final few days of the cane cutting to make sure they worked off the entire uchal.

Residents of Malegaon in north Maharashtra, 400 km from their camp near Ambad, the Waghs own 3 to 4 acres of rainfed land, and grow bajra and jowar (sorghum), both hardy crops suitable for areas with low precipitation. The yield is sufficient for the family’s annual grain requirement, but there is no excess to sell.       

The Waghs dismantled their kopi the morning of their departure for home in the last week of March. The last thing to be packed will be a framed picture of a Hindu deity, now standing propped against a metal trunk of their belongings. 

After rolling up their tarpaulin roof, the Wagh women considered the black umbrella hanging on the bamboo skeleton of the kopi. The harsh mid-morning sun appeared to be heralding a long, hot summer. “We’ll hold that in our hands—what if it rains?”

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(Kavitha Iyer is a senior editor with Article 14 and the author of ‘Landscapes of Loss’, a book on India’s farm crisis.)