Over 9-10 lakh sugarcane cutters, half of whom are women, play a significant role in the sweet success story of Maharashtra’s sugar industry. However, women sugarcane cutters’ contribution has been ignored for decades and they still fight to get recognition as sugar industry workers.
However, for the first time in history, unorganised women sugarcane cutters have joined hands to demand their rights, and recently organised ‘Women Sugarcane Cutters’ Conference’ in Beed district ahead of the 2022-23 sugarcane season. It was held by the Mahila Ustod Kamgar Sanghatana (Women Sugarcane Cutters’ Organisation).
“Women get nothing. We just work like machines and our entire life is crushed like sugarcane in mills,” says Ashwini Tonde, a sugarcane cutter from Soni Moha village in Beed. “I completed my fifth standard and started accompanying my parents for sugarcane cutting. At the age of 13, I was married and since then I have spent my life in fields,” she says, adding that she works like a bonded labourer.
Sugarcane cutters migrate from 13 districts of Maharashtra to other districts, mainly in western Maharashtra and other States like Karnataka during the six months (October to March) of the sugarcane cutting season.
Sugar mills assign the task of bringing sugarcane cutters to the contractors. These contractors in turn sign contracts with sugarcane cutters. A couple is considered as one unit while signing the contract, but the contract amount is paid to the man and not his wife.
The State government has issued a resolution to provide identity cards to sugarcane cutters, but these ID cards are in the name of male sugarcane cutter.
No to Hysterectomy surgeries
The sugar conference also discussed illegal and forced hysterectomy surgeries and sought action against those who have forced women to undergo it.
In April 2019, businessline published a story that cane-cutting contractors are unwilling to hire women who menstruate as they take a break and hence hysterectomies have become the norm. Sugarcane cutters have to pay a fine to the contractor if they take a break even for a day during the crushing season.
“We have died doing this work, our wombs were removed, and many of us went for sugarcane cutting the very next day after delivering a baby. But nobody has bothered. There are families where the fourth generation is now going for sugarcane cutting and still, we are not getting even basic rights,” said activist Manisha Tokle.
The conference approved various resolutions including legal status to the recommendations made by the State appointed committee on hysterectomy surgeries of sugarcane cutters, independent identity cards, social and legal security, etc.
The participating women insisted that the sugar which sweetens the lives of people has the fragrance of their hard work which must be recognised and acknowledged.