India is a beautiful and diverse country with a massive population of more than 1.3 billion people. Over 50 million of these individuals depend on income generated by sugar-related industries and an estimated 35 million farmers cultivate sugarcane on their land.
Every year, towards the end of the monsoon season, up to half a million struggling subsistence farmers and their families will leave their poorly irrigated land behind and travel to states like Maharashtra and Karnataka where sugarcane grows in abundance, thanks to a large network of dams.
Often journeying for days by ox cart, they have been coming to these regions for over 40 years. From November to March, they will carry out backbreaking, ill-paid work during the annual sugarcane harvest. At the end of it all, there is a real possibility that due to corruption they may not get paid what they are owed. Yet they travel from afar because they need to provide for their families, and desperately hope for a better life.
This is the story of migrant sugarcane workers in India.
“Each family sets up a shelter, forming ‘tent cities."
Arriving in the shadow of the factories, where the sugarcane will finally be processed, each family sets up a shelter, forming ‘tent cities’ that will remain for months while harvesting continues. It is common for workers to bring their entire family, including young children and the elders.
With next to no education, and without any advocates to look out for them, those offering work often take advantage of the migrants.
In Maharashtra, two-thirds of sugar factories are in the hands of some of the state’s leading and wealthiest politicians, many of whom are corrupt. While profits continue to increase, the migrants remain impoverished.
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 are forced to bathe in the open.
Parents are desperate to educate their children, yet are forced to have them work in the fields so the family can survive. An uneducated child will find no way out of migrant farming, thus continuing the cycle of poverty.
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 food-grain, under the public distribution system. Food must be procured from different sources.
With national and global demand for sugar continuing to increase, this cycle of seasonal and informal work only seems to be perpetuating.
From the repetitive work of planting and fertilizing the seedlings in the baking hot sun, to the arduous and manual process of harvesting the crop, from the towering bundles of cane transported to the factories, to the final refining and packaging ready for distribution, I followed the lifecycle of sugar in India, and documented the sugarcane migrants’ lives.
“Migrants work for hours in the 90 degree heat.”
These days, science is pushing the sugarcane industry forward from GMO cane to developing better 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 do not know what is in the fertilizer they are using. Modern factories are encouraging farmers to use organic fertilizer which leaves the soil more fertile, and also uses less water, which means irrigation can be accomplished using 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 around USD $2.25.
Later, once the cane has been planted, migrants will work for hours in the 90 degree Fahrenheit (32 degree Celsius) heat, spreading the fertilizer on the fields.
“Working in the field is a young man’s job.”
During late October, thousands of migrant men, women and children will travel to sugarcane factories to work during the harvesting season.
The migrants will work from sunrise until sunset, six days as week, earning around 200 rupees or USD $3 per day.
After six months spent laboring in the fields they will have earned about USD $500.
For factory owners it is more cost effective to pay a migrant, rather than use a tractor combine. Combines require maintenance and can sit idle for up to six months, while migrants are cheap and can easily be replaced.
Harvesting is extremely dangerous for the migrants with 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 is maintenance and little else. Aches and ailments must simply be coped with as a part of daily life.
The money earned is barely enough to survive on and certainly not enough to prosper. The next generation of migrant worker is literally raised working in the field, with skills being passed down from father to son, and mother to daughter. Children too young to work will simply spend their days sitting in the field, often in the open sun.
The migrants rarely earn enough to send their children to school, guaranteeing the next generation will be in a similar situation.
Every parent I spoke with wanted their children to have an education, but they often had to make the hard decision to send only one child to school, while the others had to remain in the fields helping harvest cane.
“A day’s work can be lost when a wheel breaks.”
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 while those on top will secure the bundles of cane.
Finding every last inch of space, trucks will often be loaded beyond what they can safely carry. A day’s work can be lost when a wheel breaks.
The trucks are loaded with about three metric tons of sugarcane making it difficult for even the most powerful tractors to pull. There are always a staggering number of trucks waiting to drop their load at the factory, and many migrants will sleep by their tractors until their turn comes.
Huge cranes are used to lift the bundles from the trucks, oxcarts and tractors. The sugarcane is then placed on a slow moving conveyor belt where it enters into the factory for the final processing.
“6,000 tonnes of sugarcane is crushed per day.”
The factory I visited will crush close to 280 tonnes per hour and about 6,000 tonnes of sugarcane per day. For every 200 tonnes of sugarcane there will be a yield of about 13 tonnes of usable sugar.
India is the world’s largest consumer of sugar and the second largest producer of cane sugar after Brazil. It accounts for approximately 15% of global sugar production with annual harvesting in excess of 28 million tons. Once the factories start production, they roll on 24 hours a day, seven days a week, until the last of the cane has been crushed.
To extract the sugar-rich juice from the cane stock, highly automated multi-step milling machines are now used. A dry pulpy residue, called “bagasse,” is left behind, which is then burnt to create electricity for the factory and to sell the excess back to the grid.
Power-driven centrifuges and forced-air driers separate 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. This is one of the few places within the factory with manual labor.
I was first made aware of India’s migrant sugarcane workers while working on another assignment for UN Women. One day, I was astonished to drive by what looked like a city made up of tents, in the shadow of a huge factory complex. I asked the driver to stop so that we could go and speak with some of the people there. It was during this twenty-minute stop that I learned some disturbing things.
Struck by the amount of time and energy they spent harvesting the cane, compared to the meager amount they are paid, I felt compelled to document how the commoditization of the sugar industry has affected the Indian migrant worker, who make long journeys from small outlying villages they are from, to larger factory towns and cities in search of work. I hoped to get to know these people, to learn more about what motivates them, and the myriad challenges they face.
In my many travels, there is one aspect of human nature I have found to be true no matter where I am, or who I am with — which is that every family wants to do the best for their children.
I have also learned that this can mean vastly different things to different families in different places, from supporting their children through higher education, to simply providing food and shelter each day. Yet, the motivation that drives them is always the same, to build a better life for their children. India’s sugarcane migrant workers were no different.
Knowing that at any given time, at any place on this Earth, there are stories that can be shared to inspire, inform, educate, and provoke change, my mission is to document and shed light on the lives of people like these migrants.
To me, that is what being a photographer is all about.