People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 31

August 01, 2010


Agri Workers in Maharashtra

Defeat Pawar-Munde's Sugar Lobby


N S Arjun


UNION agriculture and food minister, Sharad Pawar, and BJP former deputy chief minister of Maharashtra, Gopinath Munde's combined efforts to deny wage hike to the lakhs of agricultural workers engaged in sugarcane cutting were foiled by the militant struggle of the workers under the leadership of the AIAWU. The all powerful sugar lobby of Maharashtra, mainly in the Marathwada region, climbed down and agreed to the wage hike along with payment of arrears for the previous three years. And more importantly, it conceded the demand that the agricultural workers union must be made a party to all future agreements that the sugar mills cooperative makes with the stakeholders. Thus, the first agreement, in which the Union was a party, was arrived at in January 2009.


Nearly 10 lakh agricultural workers are engaged in sugarcane cutting work in Maharashtra. Of them 7 lakh work for the nearly 210 sugar mills in the state while the remaining 3 lakh migrate to the neighbouring states of Karnataka and Gujarat. These workers mostly belong to tribal communities, the nomadic tribes, scheduled castes and OBCs like Kunbis, Malis etc. Their exploitation is maximum with most working for 14 to 16 hours a day. Their working conditions are pathetic with not even bare minimum facilities provided for.  These workers are mostly migrants from rain shadow areas of the state who come to Marathwada region for engaging in this work. They get work for six to eight months in a year. Although sugarcane cutting is considered unskilled work, it is in reality a skilled work which also requires strenuous work which requires bending for hours together.


These workers had no minimum wage prescribed and given the fact that they were without work in the lean periods, the sugar mill owners used to employ contractors who come to the villages and lure them by giving a lump sum advance of around Rs 15,000 to Rs 20,000. Thus they are fixed for the sugarcane cutting job in the coming season at low rates, virtually becoming bonded labour for the contractors, who are usually the rich farmers or entrepreneurs who owned tractors and lorries for transporting. The workers used to be paid Rs 80 per tonne at the work site i.e. the sugarcane farms. The cutting season would begin in October and would extend sometimes upto May the next year. The workers would take their children also with them and engage them in the work, of course without payment as the focus is on completing the cutting for one to one-and-half tonne at least in a day to get the wage.


In such a situation the AIAWU took up the issues of these workers and had been waging consistent struggles. And in 2008, with enough ground work, the Union declared strike until their demands are met. All the lorries and tractors sent to procure the workers were prevented from entering Bheed district, where the majority of workers reside. Incidentally, Bheed is also the home district of BJP leader Gopinath Munde who is currently Lok Sabha MP from this constituency. As the strike continued, the sugar mill owners became restless because without sugarcane reaching their mills and without crushing, they were incurring huge losses each day. On an average, the 210 sugar mills of Maharashtra crush 6 crore tonnes of sugarcane in a year. The main demands of the strike were that the cooperative should make agreement with the Union, the state government should intervene, a welfare fund for these workers along with insurance must be set up etc. The workers fully participated in the strike and refused to leave their villages. The workers blocked the crucial road to Barshi in Solapur district that was a gateway to Southern Maharashtra. All efforts of the managements to procure other workers also failed in the face of unity of the workers. Here, Munde pressurised the district administration and got false cases of dacoity foisted on 37 cadre and leaders of the Union. Gopinath Munde, who himself owns two sugar mills and has a lobby of another 30 mill owners, had the full backing of Sharad Pawar, himself a big patron of sugar lobby, in trying to crush the strike. Many were arrested and tortured while there were also murderous goonda attacks on union leaders by the managements. The workers remained unflinched and continued patrolling the roads to physically obstruct any movement of trucks for carrying workers.


As the strike continued for nearly two months, and faced with mounting losses as also the threat of political costs, the sugar lobby climbed down and invited the Union for talks. Sharad Pawar also participated in these talks and it was agreed to raise the wage to Rs 112 per tonne and payment of arrears for the previous three years. Also henceforth the agreements would be made not with the contractors but with the Union.


Rajen Shivsagar, the AIAWU leader from Bheed, who led the struggle of sugarcane cutters, says that for the coming season the Union is demanding Rs 200 per tonne as the prices of sugar have sky-rocketed and the rich farmers and mill owners are making huge profits. The negotiations begin in August and depending on the outcome of the negotitations, the Union will chalk out a plan of action. He charged the Maharashtra government of deliberately not increasing the minimum wage of workers for the last many years due to pressure from the sugar lobby. Earlier it was Rs 66 but with the struggle of the Union and democratic movement it was raised to Rs 102. He also makes a serious charge that the Maharashtra government is deliberately trying to kill the NREGA scheme in the state as it fears this would raise the wages of agricultural labour further.


Another interesting aspect of this struggle in Maharashtra has been the way the workers, again under the leadership of the Union, prevented the managements and rich farmers from going for mechanisation of sugarcane cutting. Keen to cut their dependence on the labour, these managements had imported 18 huge sugarcane cutter machines from Germany and other places in Europe in 2002. The workers unleashed a big struggle against this move and there was serious fighting in at least two sugar mills. The workers threatened to burn these machines. Faced with severe resistance and total strike by the workers, the managements backtracked and only 4 of these machines are presently being used in Pune region, the home region of Sharad Pawar.


Kumar Shiralkar, the all India vice president of AIAWU from Maharashtra, says that all these struggles and united achievements have strengthened the class unity of the workers engaged in sugarcane cutting. Although they come from differing social backgrounds, they are mostly landless or have small holdings of dryland. He feels implementing NREGA properly in the state would strengthen the bargaining power of these workers further.