Covid-19: Sugar mills moving to mechanised harvesting as labour scarcity haunts crushing season

Radheshyam Jadhav | | Updated on: Dec 06, 2021


A large number of sugar mills across India are moving to mechanised sugarcane harvesting this season with Covid-19 likely to affect the availability of sugarcane cutters. Prakash Naiknavare, Managing Director, National Federation of Cooperative Sugar Factories told BusinessLine that mechanised harvesting will get a major push this year.

“Mills are purchasing sugarcane harvesters in big numbers. Mills in Maharashtra have already placed orders for about 200 harvesters and a similar trend is seen in Karnataka and Gujarat where mills are dependent on cane cutters. The need for mechanised harvesting is being discussed for the last 10 years and it is the need of the hour,” said Naiknavare.

He added that sugar mills are going to face a major challenge to get skilled cane cutters in the future. “About seven-nine lakh labourers (cane cutters) are into cane cutting in Maharashtra. I don’t see this continuing in the future, and in this scenario of mechanised harvesting is the only option left. Earlier, there were issues about the huge size of harvesters that were not suitable for Indian conditions. But now medium-size harvesters are available in the market which are in good demand,” Naiknavare added.


In North India, farmers cut cane and mills collect it from collection centres, while in Maharashtra, Gujarat and Karnataka mills send teams of cane cutters to cut the cane. Contractors who sign contracts with mills and cane cutters are finding it difficult to get labour as many don’t want to leave their villages due to the fear of Covid-19. Also, there is uncertainty about the government’s stand to allow mass movement of cane cutters from one place to another amidst the pandemic.

Based on satellite images procured in the latter part of June 2020, the total acreage under sugarcane in the country is estimated at around 52.28 lakh hectares in 2020-21, which is about 8 per cent higher than the 2019-20 sugar season’s cane area of around 48.41 lakh hectares, according to Indian Sugar Mills Association (ISMA).

Mechanisation to affect cane cutters

Mechanisation of cane cutting might affect lakhs of cane cutters who are dependent on cane cutting for a livelihood. In Maharashtra, cane cutters from the drought-prone areas of Marathwada migrate to western Maharashtra and parts of Karnataka for cane cutting. Sugar industry players say that as cane cutting is a strenuous task, many cane cutters are opting for other work and do not want their next generation to get into cane cutting.

But activists fear that if mills do not provide cane cutting tasks to cane cutters, many would face a major challenge to earn a living. Already Covid-19 has deprived them of work and mechanisation will push them into a deeper crisis.

Published on July 28, 2020
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