The coming days will see the start of the annual misery for thousands of migrant labourers from one of the most backward districts of the state, men and women who will be heading to western Maharashtra, slogging it out day and night on the farms in a bid to earn their livelihood and also clear up their loans
Ashok Kumar | Clarion India
MUMBAI – With the monsoon coming to an end and the festival season setting in from October, contractors who provide labourers for the sugar mills in western Maharashtra start descending on Beed, one of the most backward districts in the state. The men are familiar with the labourers and head for their homes, offering them about Rs30,000 to Rs40,000 as advance for the six months that they will be working in the fields and factories in the more affluent parts of the state, especially in western Maharashtra.
Of course, most of the poor workers get just half the amount, as the balance is deducted from the previous year’s debts that the contractor claims they have piled up with him. But considering the fact that Beed is barren, with very low rainfall, virtually no industries (large, medium or small-scale) or service sector players, it is natural for the people to accept his terms and sign up for the contract.
“There are between 8 lakh and 10 lakh workers in Beed who migrate elsewhere and work there for six months in a year,” Ashok Tangade of Jagar Pratishthan, a leading NGO in the district, told Clarion India. “Most of them head mainly to western Maharashtra, but some go even to Karnataka, Telangana and Andhra Pradesh.” But sadly, they are exploited by the contractors, made to slog for 14 to 16 hours a day. And the worst sufferers are the young women who accompany the men on these annual trips to the sugar hubs of Maharashtra.
Working life is tough for both men and women at the camps. The day begins at 5 in the morning and by 6 sugarcane cutting operations begin. The women cook and do the other chores in the small, temporary huts and come to the field along with lunch boxes by 9am. “The men cut the cane, while the women tie it up,” explains Tangade. “By noon, the trucks arrive at the field and the women carry 40-50 kg bags to the loading place.”
The trucks then head to the sugar mills, which operate round-the-clock. Cane has to be fed continuously to the mills for six months, so the trucks return at night to the farms. “The drivers have different horn-blowing techniques and the labourers get to know when their allotted truck arrives,” notes Tangade. “Its back to work in the middle of the night.”
And early in the morning before daylight, women bathe in darkness in the open ponds, wash their clothes and put them up for drying, he says. The worst time for them is during the menstruation cycle, when they are supposed to wash their clothes and put them for drying where the men cannot see the garments. It’s a traumatic experience for the young women, still in their teens and they have to follow the traditional norms for women in periods. “Infections are rampant in the camps and the women suffer, but they have to start work early in the morning and continue through the day and night,” he notes.
The women earn Rs299 as daily wages, but there are ridiculous rules governing the payment. For instance, if a woman is unable to work on a given day because of her menstruation cycle, she is not only deprived of her daily wage, but also has to pay Rs500 to the contractor for failure to turn up for work. Under constant pressure from contractors and even from family members, the women face a bleak future.
Many of them have three to four kids by the time they are in their mid-20s. Naturally, this ‘adversely affects’ their work performance and some of the contractors encourage them to undergo hysterectomy. They are then taken to a syndicate of doctors in Beed who insist they undergo the traumatic operation. And they are charged a whopping Rs35,000 to Rs45,000 for the womb removal surgery; and the contractor is ready to extend the funds, which he can ‘recover’ over her lifetime.
Sadly, by the time a migrant woman from Beed reaches the age of 30, she is physically and mentally exhausted and emotionally unstable. “They are susceptible to all ailments and suffer a lot,” explains Tangade. The vicious cycle continues over the years, despite numerous legislation aimed at putting an end to bonded labour and ensuring minimum wages.
Women in Beed have suffered over the decades and given the strong lobbies at work, there appears to be no end to their miseries. Almost all political parties in Maharashtra keep talking about helping the poor workers of Beed, but the bitter truth is that many of their leaders back the contractor-sugar mills lobby, even run the outfits or are closely involved with them.