The majority of households of the Sonimoha village in the Marathwada region of Maharashtra are locked. Except for senior villagers and children, there is no one in the village. It is not just Sonimoha, but hundreds of villages in the region wear a deserted look between October to March. With no source of livelihood, all young men and women migrate for sugarcane cutting every year, leaving behind their parents and kids. This year, they have left their homes amidst the pandemic as the fear of harvesting machines taking away their jobs loomed larger than that of the coronavirus.
“You will find abandoned and unmanned villages across the Marathwada region, especially in the Beed district. There are about six lakh cane cutters in the region who have no other source of livelihood than cane cutting. The money they get from cane cutting helps them to survive all the year,” says activist Ashok Tangade.
This year, cane cutters have migrated to western Maharashtra and parts of Andhra Pradesh. “More and more sugar cane millers and big farmers are purchasing harvesting machines, and cane cutters feared that if they take a break because of Covid-19, they would lose their work forever,” Tangade adds.
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Undercut by machines
Sominath Gholwe, a researcher says that considering the expensive price of the harvesting machine, many farmers are coming together to buy it. Under the Rashtriya Krishi Vikas Yojana, the government provides a grant of ₹40 lakh to purchase a harvester. “This has enabled many farmers to buy the machine. As of now, there are about 600 harvesters in the State. One machine cuts 200-tonne canes in a day while two cane cutters cut 2-tonne canes in a day. It means that one machine takes away work of 100 cane cutters. Already, 60,000 cane cutters in Maharashtra have lost work because of machines” says Gholwe.
According to the National Federation of Cooperative Sugar Factories (NFCSF), at the beginning of sugar crushing season this year, mills in Maharashtra had placed orders for about 200 harvesters. The NFCSF predicts that the number of sugarcane cutters is going to decline as a new generation would opt for other works and hence there is a need for harvesting machines.
However for the new generation, the future is hanging in the balance. ‘Crushed Hopes’, a report on women cane cutters recently published by various organisations, observes that migration of cane-cutter parents is leading to chidren dropping out of school. Once they drop out of school at a small age, the children get married early and this creates health-related problems, especially among young girls, the report observed.
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