India's sugarcane workers suffer debt bondage as climate change bites

Several labourers said working in the sector, on which about 50 million agricultural workers and their families rely, had made their lives worse - for financial and health reasons in recent years

Published : 6 Feb 2023, 03:22 AM
Updated : 6 Feb 2023, 03:25 AM

For the first time in over a century, no crops are growing on the Nave family's land in western India - and 25-year-old Nitin Nave feels guilty for failing to uphold the family's farming legacy.

Last year, Nave and his three brothers - who own nine acres of farmland in Dhule, Maharashtra - only harvested 50kg of pearl millet, a far cry from the 2,500kg of various crops from sorghum to soybeans they used to reap each year before increasingly erratic and unpredictable weather ruined their livelihood.

"The produce was so little that I could sell nothing and had to keep everything for the family," Nave said, adding that they used to earn about 9,000 rupees ($110) a month from their crops.

  • Climate shocks in Maharashtra ruin crops for many farmers

  • More people are migrating to sugarcane fields to seek work

  • Some say they are trapped due to low pay, poor conditions

He worked on other farms to make ends meet, but incessant rains destroyed crops - like cotton and wheat - there too.

"I was left with no money to cultivate anything," Nave said, explaining that he and his family had no choice but to quit farming and seek work away from Chhavadi village - following the lead of other members of the indigenous Bhil Adivasi community.

"When I abandoned farming, it felt like a personal loss," he added. "This is something my (late) father, who loved farming, would never forgive me for."

Nave and his wife travelled hundreds of kilometres with their two young children to find work in 2020 in the sugarcane fields of western Maharashtra, despite warnings from peers about arduous conditions and long hours, as well as debt bondage.

Labour contractors - who act as middlemen between sugarcane workers and farm owners - offer cash advances based on an informal agreement about how much cane the labourers are expected to harvest that season over five to six months.

Rights activists and community advocates have raised the alarm about a cycle of debt that results in long days, illness and injury as workers struggle to work off what they owe.

They say the situation has been exacerbated by climate change as crops fail and jobs dry up for small-scale farmers or casual agriculture workers - with many then migrating to find work but facing dwindling pay and worsening labour conditions.

"In the past four to five years, the instances of debt bondage have increased a lot," said Narayan Gaikwad, a member of the All India Kisan Sabha farmers' association who has spent several decades advocating for the rights of sugarcane cutters.


India is the world's biggest producer of sugar, with a record output of 35.8 million tonnes in the 2021-22 year.

About 50 million agricultural workers and their families are estimated to rely on the industry, according to government data.

However, several labourers - including Nave and his wife - said working in the sector in Kolhapur district in recent years had made their lives worse - for financial and health reasons.

For the last two harvesting seasons, Nave and his wife have taken an advance from a labour contractor of 40,000 rupees ($490) - as workers typically do to start off in the sector.

The first year, they managed to cut about 145,000kg of cane, with the rate of pay set at 275 rupees ($3.30) per 1,000kg.

However, when their 2-year-old son fell ill with diarrhoea, the couple had to spend about three-quarters of that season's pay on his treatment at a private hospital - giving them no choice but to return to the fields for a second season.

The couple said that constant rainfall, rising heat and 14-hour days cutting and carrying cane on their heads were badly affecting their health.

"In case we don't meet the target, I'll have to return even the next year," said Nave's wife Moni, adding that she suffered from fever, dizziness, and aches but was unable to rest due to the debt.

Seema Kulkarni, a member of Mahila Kisan Adhikaar Manch (Forum For Women Farmers' Rights), said that Adivasi people were being poorly paid because they had little bargaining power.

"Adivasis are occupying the spaces that the traditional (sugarcane) cutters have temporarily left ... (it is) linked with the depression of wages," she said, adding that the latter were increasingly migrating to better-paying fields elsewhere.

Maharashtra's labour department did not immediately respond to requests for comment about debt bondage in the sugar sector.

Labour contractor Bagdu Bhil said shrinking sugarcane yields meant more debt-ridden workers were returning to the fields season after season to do the "tremendous back-breaking labour".

"Since there's not enough cane left, they (cane cutters) return the next year to repay their debt," said Bhil, a farmer from Dhule who also migrated to work as sugarcane cutter before becoming a labour contractor in 2021.


Dharma Bhil, who like Nave moved with his wife to start cutting sugarcane a few years ago, said the changing climate had put an end to his previous work as a tractor driver in Dhule.

"The rains are causing a lot of damage (to crops)," said Bhil, an Adivasi in his early 40s.

In October 2022 alone - the month when most crops are harvested - Dhule recorded 64 mm of rain - 179% of the average rainfall for the month, according to state data.

"Now, I've accepted that I have to spend four to six months every year in the sugarcane fields," added Dharma Bhil, who took an advance from a labour contractor of about 40,000 rupees and has found himself having to return to the industry due to debt.

Prolonged summer droughts followed by heavy rains have also cut cane yields, with sugar output expected to fall 7% this marketing year, farmers, millers and traders warned last month.

Gaikwad of All India Kisan Sabha said that dwindling harvests and the rise of sugarcane-cutting machines meant that conditions for workers in the fields would "get much worse".

"This will leave them with much less work and no bargaining power," he said.

Community health worker Maya Patil said she had seen many cases of sugarcane cutters taking steroid injections to treat pain and avoid taking breaks, and that there was a growing sense of hopelessness in the sector - especially during hot spells.

"Whenever there's a heatwave-like condition, I've seen many incidents of violence," said Patil, who has spent more than a decade helping sugarcane workers access healthcare.

Alcoholism is a problem among cutters, resulting in domestic abuse and violence against women and children, she added.

But workers like Bhil and the Naves say they have no option but to endure the worsening weather and labour conditions.

Nave recalled how, after his first year cutting cane in 2021, he vowed to never again return to work in the sector.

Today, he finds himself trapped by debt with no way out.

"I am caught in this cycle now."