COVID19: Give-and-take ensures unhindered sugar operations in south Gujarat

Sugar production has continued in the region due to traditional interdependence, despite a complete halt in other sectors

By Rajeev Khanna
Published: Monday 30 March 2020
Labourers loading harvested sugarcane on a truck in South Gujarat. Photo: Rajeev Khanna

The traditional interdependence of big farmers, land owners, workers and mill managements is presenting an interesting scenario in the sugar belt of south Gujarat, even as the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) has rendered millions jobless across India.

The south Gujarat region covers the districts of Bharuch, Narmada, Surat, Tapi, Navsari, Valsad and the Dangs. “South Gujarat is among the major sugar-producing belts of India. We produce around 90 lakh quintals of sugar annually,” Sandeep Mangrola, the chairman of a co-operative mill, said.

There was an exodus from the region, mainly of migrant labourers, when the 21-day lockdown was announced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the night of March 24, 2020. Most of them are adivasis (from Scheduled Tribes), and hail from the Dangs as well as adjoining districts of Maharashtra.

“The labourers left in large numbers, walking towards the Dangs on roads and also towards Maharashtra, taking the railway route. Their concerns were socio-economic,” Jayesh Gamit, a social activist who has been working very closely with the workers employed in sugarcane fields and sugar mills, said.

“They were concerned that they should be closer to the families. With their ration cards and other government registrations that might get them some reprieve from the emerging dismal scenario at their native place, they did not want to be away. The spread of various rumours added to their apprehensions,” he added.

Workers in both, sugar fields as well as mills, get their wages only at the end of the sugarcane harvest and sugar production season that extends up to April-end or even May in some cases.

“It is a sort of ‘bonded’ labour model. During their working days at the fields and the mills, the labourers are given jowar (sorghum) and some pittance as pocket money which they normally spend on bare essentials for survival,” Gamit underlined. The lockdown, in such a scenario, was bound to multiply their apprehensions.

For the adivasis of Gujarat’s tribal areas like the Dangs, wheat flour and polished rice are luxuries. They mainly consume coarse grains like jowar and ragi (finger millet) locally known as nagli.

A movement has been building in the region, seeking better wages and facilities for those employed in the sugar sector. According to reports, sugarcane workers have been seeking higher wages, improved working and living conditions along with other social security benefits for the last five years. 

There was a strike on February 28 that was ‘crushed’. “Recalcitrant workers were asked to pack up and go home without settlement of their accounts. Supervisors threatened workers, who had stopped work, that they would not be allotted farms for cutting sugarcane,” one report said.

On the other hand, mill and farm owners said they were helping their employees. Mill managements as well as sugarcane farmers were taking care of their employees, ensuring that they got proper food and other necessities, Mangrola said.

“It is a two-way thing. It is the peak of the harvest season and no landowner can afford the workers leaving their job. Similarly, the mills need a consistent supply of sugarcane that can be processed for making sugar and extracting other by-products,” he said.

At present, only eight of the 15 sugar mills in the region were functional, according to Mangrola. The paucity of sugarcane supply, which in turn, had been impacted by the slowing down of harvesting operations in the fields, was having an impact.

Around 150,000-200,000 workers were carrying out sugar production in the mills in the region currently, according to Gamit.

Harvesting sugarcane is a highly labour-intensive job in which harvesters have to stoop, slash and stack the individual stalks in a hot and humid surrounding. Cane harvesting in the past was carried out mostly by slave labour since it was it was very demanding physically, according to experts.

Taking care of workers in the fields and mills had long been a tradition in Gujarat and was being followed currently, Ishvarsinh Patel, Gujarat’s minister of state for co-operatives, said.

“Community kitchens have been set up in the fields for the labourers involved in harvesting across the sugarcane belt of South Gujarat. Similarly, dry rations are being provided to those working in the mills which they cook in the homes allotted to them in the labour colonies. Their medical and other needs will also be taken care of,” he said.

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