While gearing up for the upcoming sugarcane crushing season, the sugar industry expects the Indian government and the States to support the mills to promote mechanical harvesters so that 100 per cent mechanical harvesting could soon become a reality.   

“There is no option for mechanical harvesting of sugarcane and mills are gearing up to achieve the maximum target in the coming season. Mills are discussing the matter with the government (State and the Centre). The release of government subsidies for the harvesters should be accelerated,” West Indian Sugar Mills Association (WISMA) President BB Thombare told businessline.     

“Mechanical harvesting is considered the best agriculture practice in several countries such as the US, Thailand, and Brazil, which have adopted the method to increase the harvest yield. Mechanical harvesting is changing the face of sugar harvesting in India. Several sugar mills are using mechanical harvesting and the harvesting has improved” said Uppal Shah, Co-founder and CEO, AgriMandi.Live Research.

“As economies develop, farm labour will be sparse, so you have to migrate to technology. I would request the government to evolve a national policy on mechanical harvesting, which will lead to more usage in sugarcane fields, and help sugar mills to harvest cane efficiently.”

Benefits for farmers, millers

Indian Sugar Mills Association (ISMA) estimates that, currently, there are about  2,000 mechanical harvesters operating in India, covering just about 4 per cent of total sugarcane. According to ISMA, the adoption of mechanical harvesting would represent a mutually beneficial situation for both farmers and millers. Primarily, it addresses the labour shortage issue. Industry players claim that scarcity of manual labour which is becoming expensive could be avoided with use of harvesters. 

Millers argue that the use of mechanical harvesters not only ensures even cane cutting but also enhances trash spreading, significantly improving the crop’s ability to produce ratoons. This, in turn, directly benefits farmers without incurring any additional costs.

Labourers as mill workers

The demand for harvesters comes against the backdrop of enduring disputes between the sugar industry and the government, both at the State and Central levels, concerning the welfare of sugarcane cutters. These labourers, who operate without formal organisation, are deprived of the welfare advantages typically afforded to workers.

Sugar mills have consistently declined to classify them as mill employees, while State governments advocate for mills to establish facilities such as temporary shelters, hospitals and educational opportunities for the children of sugarcane workers.