At the end of the monsoon season, up to a half a million subsistence farmers will leave their poorly irrigated land and travel to where the sugarcane grows plentiful, thanks to abundant water and a large network of dams.
Migrants have been coming for well over 40 years to work at some of the 200 or more factories that spread across 3 states.
While profits continue to increase for owners, it’s the migrants that remain impoverished.
Two-thirds of Maharashtra’s sugar factories are in the hands of some of the state’s leading and wealthiest politicians. With next to no education or advocates looking out for them, the migrants future looks increasingly bleak.
Household work, including cleaning, cooking and taking care of any cattle, gets delegated to the girls.
Inhabitants make do without running water or electricity. As a result women and girls who migrate for work, face additional hardships. They have to collect water from a communal source for the entire family, and they are forced to bathe in the open.
The ICDS (Integrated Child Development Services) does not take into account the needs of rural Indians on the move, and thus ignores the children in these colonies.
Because they migrate, families also lose other welfare entitlements like foodgrain under the public distribution system. Food must be procured from different sources.
Science is pushing the sugarcane industry forward, from GMO cane, to developing the best irrigation techniques. The more cane that can be grown on a given piece of land the more money that can be made.
Incredibly, many farmers don’t know what’s in the fertilizer they are using. Factories are encouraging farmers to use organic fertilizer. Organic fertilizer uses less water so that irrigation can be accomplished through the drip method.
Organic fertilizer is great for the field but time consuming and extremely labor intensive to create.
Often, older women are charged with making fertilizer. They will earn 150 Rupees per day or approx. $2.25 US. Later, migrants will work in the 90 degree heat spreading the fertilizer on fields of recently planted cane.
“Working in the field is a young man’s job”
For six months each year, in late October thousands of migrant men, women and children will travel to sugarcane factories to work in the fields harvesting cane. Because of a local drought they are forced to travel great distances to find work.
It is extremely dangerous for the migrants with the possible exposure to high levels of pesticides as well as potential injuries from cut cane, machetes and snakes.
There are no public health services that migrants can access. A factory may have a doctor to deal with basic injuries or sickness but it’s maintenance and little else. Body aches and ailments are part of life.
For factory owners it’s cheaper to pay a migrant to harvest than to use a tractor combine. Tractor combines require maintenance and can sit idle for up to six months while migrants are cheap and can easily be replaced.
Migrants will work from sunrise until sunset 6 days a week and earn 200 rupees or about $3.00 US per day. After six months in the field they will have earned about $500.00 US.
Children too young to work will spend their days sitting in the field often in the open sun. Meenwhile children of fulltime factory workers will be in childcare or school, all but guaranteeing a better future.
The money earned is barely enough to survive on and not enough to prosper. They do not earn enough to send their children to school and that guarantees the next generation will be in a similar situation.
The morning will be used to cut and tie the sugarcane. After lunch, workers will carry the tied cane and load up trucks to the tipping point. Then they transport it to the factory for processing.
Working like ants on an assembly line the “gang” will methodically stack the trucks. Meanwhile men on top of the load will cut and tie the cane for secure transportation.
Finding every last inch of space, migrants will often load the trucks beyond what they can safely carry. A day’s work can be lost when a wheel breaks.
The trucks are loaded with about 3 metric tons of sugarcane making it difficult for even the most powerful tractors to pull.
Since there are a staggering number of trucks waiting to drop off sugarcane for processing, many migrants will sleep by their tractors until it’s time to do the drop at the factory.
Huge cranes are used to lift the sugarcane from the trucks, oxcarts and tractors. The sugarcane is placed on a slow moving conveyor belt where it’s moved into the factory for processing.
This factory will crush close to 280 tons per hour and in a day crush about 6000 tons of sugarcane. For every 200 tons of sugarcane there will be a yield of about 13 tons of usable sugar.
The factory runs 24/7 for about 6 months or until all the cane has been converted into sugar. India is the second largest producer of sugar next to Brazil contributing almost 15% of the world’s sugar or about 28 million tons.
A multi-step milling machine extracts the sugar-rich liquid from the cane. A material called “Bagasse” is what’s left behind; it will be burnt creating electricity to run the plant. Excess electricity will be sold back to the grid.
Power-driven centrifuges, and forced-air driers separate the sugar from the molasses. This is known as open pan sulphitation (OPS) sugar processing.
Eventually granulated sugar makes its way to where it will be packaged in bags. This is one of the few places within the factory that has manual labor.
Once the sugar has been packaged it will leave the factory via conveyor belts to a large storage unit called a “godown” the sugar will stay here until it is shipped to it’s final destination.