In the heart of Maharashtra lies a tangled web of politics and sugar, inseparable and entwined. Here, where cooperative sugar mills were born, almost every politician has a stake in the sugar industry, and money flows like the sweet sap of sugarcane. In the 2024 elections, this dynamic remains unchanged. Yet, amidst this opulent display of power and wealth, there is a deafening silence. The very politicians who have built their empires on the sugar economy refuse to acknowledge one crucial aspect of their industry - the sugarcane cutters.

Amidst the lofty promises that fill the air, Rani Nikam (name changed) brought a new life into the world amidst the rustling sugarcane fields of Karad. But she is not alone in her plight. Many sugarcane cutters like her toil in the fields, cutting cane even as their bellies swell with new life. Their children, born into this harsh world, often meet tragic ends, crushed under the weight of tractors or lost to the unforgiving roads. Yet, the sugar mills owners turn a blind eye to their plight. Over ten lakh sugarcane cutters, half of them women, continue to fight for their fundamental rights as citizens of the country as their plight finds no resonance in the election campaign.

Majority of sugarcane cutters are from Marathwada, especially, Beed district. who migrate to western Maharashtra, Karnataka and Telangana during the sugar crushing season which lasts for about six months.

Unending apathy

“Generations of sugarcane cutters have faced tremendous exploitation, but nobody has helped us. The living conditions on the sugar mill site are worse. We have to work almost 15-18 hour daily without any break. Be it pregnant women, some who, having fever or menstrual cycles. Women have to carry the heavy burden of sugarcane on their heads and load tractors and trucks. Nobody has helped in improving these conditions,” says Dwarka Waghmare, a sugarcane cutter from Beed.

“The sugar lobby is a class that pervades across political parties, with the political elite thriving on the sugar economy. Sugar mills absolve themselves of any responsibility towards sugarcane cutters. The harsh reality of financial and sexual exploitation, along with the denial of basic workers’ rights and amenities like toilets, remains absent from political discussions,” says Seema Kulkarni, coordinator of the Mahila Kisan Adhikar Manch in Maharashtra. “Despite numerous legal and administrative measures, the plight of sugarcane cutters, who are integral to the sugar industry, remains unchanged,” she added.

Silence on political front

Predictably, no political party has addressed the issue of sugarcane cutters in their ongoing campaigns. The sugar barons of western Maharashtra deflect responsibility, asserting that sugarcane cutters fall under the purview of farmers, as mills pay Fair and Remunerative Price (FRP) to farmers. In the sugar belt of western Maharashtra, where sugar barons from all parties are actively campaigning for the upcoming elections, the sugarcane cutters problems are conspicuously absent from the agenda.

In Beed district, known as the district of sugarcane cutters, the BJP’s Pankaja Munde and the NCP’s Bajrang Sonawane are locked in a fierce electoral battle. However, sugarcane cutters lament that both candidates offer nothing new, only repeating the lofty promises they have been making for several elections.