Beed, Maharashtra: It was only an abrasion, but after a morning of hard labour in temperatures grazing 42 degrees Celsius, the sugarcane harvest workers were angry enough to force a truck driver out of his vehicle after it hit one of their bullock carts, causing Gopal Vaijnath Gore to fall to the ground and scrape his shin.
It was 2 pm. A handful of motorcyclists and car-drivers braving the heat parked along the side of the Dharur-Majalgaon road to watch the commotion.
This has become an everyday occurrence, the agitated sugarcane labourers said, as two representatives proceeded to corner the truck driver, who had been trying to overtake the bullocks and swerved to avoid an oncoming vehicle. A negotiation began, for ‘medical expenses’ the labourers wanted .
Sugar, a Rs 80,000-crore industry in India, has a bitter truth in Maharashtra, I reported. Poorly paid, lacking formal contracts, at risk from climate change and accidents, its harvest workers are forced to work under a debt bondage system outlawed in India in 1976 and lack sanitary living spaces at work.
Gore, a wiry man in his twenties, spends six months every year living with his family in a cramped tent called a kopi on a patch of land adjoining cane fields. Stacks of harvested cane lay on the cart he fell from, to be crushed and processed at a sugar mill 15 km away in Telgaon, one of nearly 50 in the arid central Maharashtra region known as Marathwada. “Our bullocks and our people are constantly in danger,” he said.
It reminded me of a well-known tale about Joseph C Kumarappa, the Thanjavur-born accountant and finance professional who worked closely with Mahatma Gandhi on developing economic theories based on Gandhian principles, including gram udyog, or village industries.
Around 1950, invited to Delhi for a meeting of the Planning Commission’s advisory committee, Kumarappa is said to have arrived in a horse-drawn tonga that guards would not allow on the capital’s VIP roads. The very displeased economist reportedly told prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru that he would ride a bullock cart to Rashtrapati Bhavan the following day, to which Nehru responded by saying it was for the animals’ safety that bullock carts were prohibited. These roads, after all, were frequented by large military vehicles.
I wanted to tell Gore what Kumarappa told the prime minister—due restrictions should be placed on whatever poses the danger, not the converse. Gore beat me to it.
“We want development too, we enjoy the new highways as much as you do,” he said. “It would just be nice if everyone acknowledges that there are poor people using bullock carts or cycles for work.”
All around Gore and the other 800,000 sugarcane harvest workers of Maharashtra, the world is transformed.
Maharashtra’s sugarcane output grew by over 50% since 2015; this explosion has meant a steady depletion of groundwater; harvest workers are often able to grow only a single crop of sorghum or millet on their own land; distress migration rose in the same period; more cane meant more harvest work, driving the under-employed from communities that did not traditionally migrate for the cane harvest to begin to do so; even the uses of cane grew, to include ethanol, produced from a sugar industry byproduct, molasses, mainly for ethanol-blended petrol.
Sleek new highways criss-cross Marathwada, home to a growing industrial city that promises investors world-class infrastructure and connectivity to the Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor (DMIC), where companies are already investing over Rs 18,000 crore.
“Only for the oos-tod kaamgaar (cane harvest worker), nothing has changed,” Gore said as his friends haggled with the truck driver for Rs 500.
On the high-speed expressways, their bullock carts weave a dissonant tale.
Read Kavitha Iyer's full story here.