We live in a world shaped by human migration. Every day people make a decision to leave their hometown – or even their own country – and move elsewhere to work, study, retire, or reunite with their families. Migration has changed the demographic composition of towns, cities and nations. In India, even after Independence on August 15, 1947, migration has been a constant process. Although people migrate for many reason, I am focusing on one particular type of migration known as the Koytas migration. (The Koytas: as these families are known due to the tool they use for cutting cane). In the last one and a half months, the demographic structure of the Dang district’s villages has changed due to a large population of Koytas migrating to neighboring districts for cutting the sugar cane. Most of the houses of Koytas are vacant without any security locks. Why they don’t lock their houses? Because they don’t have any valuables to secure after migration – cattle are the most valuable possessions they have. Mostly they carry goats for milk, because they are easy to load onto a truck, while they start to migrate. They give cows and buffaloes to elder people of their own families or sometimes to neighbors because they are not capable to cut the sugar cane while tending to them. Mostly neighbors take care after migration of other Koytas families, who are left behind in the villages due their own work in agriculture, daily labor etc.
Koytas’ life in sugar cane field is very complicated. Usually they wake up at 4 am and make their way with their toil (group of around 10 workers) to sugar cane fields. From 4 am in the morning till noon they cut sugar canes, and in the second half they start to bind it. They are ready to work for 24 hours. They have to load the truck as soon as it arrives – no matter at what time. After laboring around the clock, they are still not able to work off the advance they have taken from the mukaddam (contractor). What makes them leave their home to endure that harsh working conditions? Why do they go to other places, uprooting their families and disrupting their children‘s education? I have been trying to understand what the core problem here is. Are they aware of it or not? So I asked different people who still live here; owner of tea shop, barber, and government school teachers. Their response: “There is no water in our field. If government irrigated our land, we would not have anywhere to work.”
During a good monsoon season, here we can grow some jowar (millet) or groundnut. But after that there is nothing to grow – barely a few days of agricultural work, which pays a pittance of Rs 60 – 70 (around one dollar) a day for women. The farming crisis has made agriculture unviable for several farmers here. Trapped in a cycle of loans, workers keep going to sugar factories every year. The need for a lump sum advance for consumption expenditure, to plan their children’s marriage or pay medical bills, makes workers approach the contractor. Families will repay the loan in labor by cutting between one and two tons of cane a day, at the rate of Rs 110 – 120 a ton.
It is not surprising that these migrants work under the most insecure conditions with minimal legal protection. Sugar is the most organized industry, but this sector has the most unorganized workers. Although the sugar factory pays their advance through the mukaddam, they refuse to acknowledge them as workers…
In my next post, I will focus on what Indian labor law say about the unorganized labor and what is the ground reality. To be continued in Part 2.