Human Costs of Sugar: Living and Working Conditions of Migrant Cane-cutters in Maharashtra


This report discusses sugarcane cultivation in Maharashtra. It was published by Oxfam International in February 2020.

Having produced over 10 million metric tons of sugar in 2018-19, Maharashtra is second among all Indian states in sugar cultivation (after Uttar Pradesh). The sugar industry relies on informal migrant labour from the drought prone Marathwada region for cane cutting. The social and economic challenges in sugarcane cultivation include water scarcity; poverty, indebtedness and gender inequality among migrant workers; and labour, women’s, and child rights violations.

The report covers the political, economic, and social background of sugar cultivation in the region; an analysis of the sugarcane supply chain; research on migrants from Marathwada and female labour participation in sugarcane farms; as well as policy recommendations for the sector. The authors referred to existing studies to understand the context and challenges in sugarcane cultivation. They also held interviews and focus group discussions with migrant cane cutters – mostly women – to support their research.


  1. The report estimates that 1.6 million farmers cultivate sugarcane on 700,000 hectares of land in Maharashtra. They rely on 1.5 million workers for seasonal harvesting and transport activities. About 200,000 children below 14 years help their parents cut cane during harvests. Roughly 40 per cent of migrant workers are from Bid district, and around 15 per cent are from Ahmadnagar.

  2. Maharashtra has the largest number of sugar mills and sugar mill cooperatives in India. Cooperatives produce 60 per cent of all the sugar in the state, but private mills have been gaining prominence in recent years. The number of cooperative factories in the state reduced from 202 in 2016 to 178 in 2018.

  3. The cooperative movement in Maharashtra began in 1950 among cane-growing peasants who opposed landlessness, moneylenders and exploitation at private sugar mills. The broad-based involvement of farmers with diverse land holdings was the key strength of this movement.

  4. About 80 per cent of people in Marathwada rely on agriculture or animal husbandry for subsistence. The region has endured a prolonged agrarian crisis due to droughts, lack of irrigation and alternative livelihood options, land and water conflicts, caste and gender inequality, and inadequate crop insurance schemes. Many Dalit families in Marathwada are landless or control small plots of nonarable land. They are denied access to unused public land for cattle grazing and cannot afford to purchase water.

  5. The agrarian crisis in Marathwada has resulted in poverty, indebtedness and forced migration. These conditions compel agricultural workers to borrow from local moneylenders at interest rates as high as three to five per cent. In Bid district, 67 per cent of farm labourers are in debt. Most of the workers interviewed for this report were in debt ranging from Rs. 55,000 to Rs. 100,000.

  6. Labour contractors in Marathwada – locally called mukkadams – recruit workers to cut cane on behalf of sugar mills. The contractors informally employ workers in jodis (work pairs), usually comprising of a married couple. Mukkadams pay each jodi an advance to cover travel expenses. In order to undermine the workers’ collective bargaining power, mukkadams typically hire people from different villages. Those recruited are made to live in large colonies of makeshift tents with tarpaulin covers. The colonies are often without water, electricity or toilets.

  7. Discrimination is pervasive in the recruitment process and employment conditions of cane cutters. The migrant workers employed are seldom Brahmins or Vaishyas and mainly come from middle and lower castes. People from Denotified and Nomadic Tribes have increasingly begun migrating to work as cane cutters. Further, wages for jodis are mostly paid to the man, diminishing women’s control over her finances and agency.

  8. Harvesting sugarcane is a labour-intensive process. Within each jodi, the man usually cuts through the cane stalk and strips their leaves. The woman cleans the stalks, ties them together and loads the 40 to 45 kg bundles onto trollies. A jodi cuts about three tons of sugarcane daily, together earning Rs. 200 to 250 per ton.

  9. Although the minimum daily wage for agricultural labour in the region rests at Rs. 300, cane cutters have to work 12 to 15 hours a day to earn this amount. They do not get social security benefits such as provident funds or employee insurance, and wage deductions for even half a day’s leave can range from Rs. 500 to 1,000. Accidents and severe injuries at the workplace are not uncommon.

  10. Reproductive health issues are widespread among women migrant workers in Marathwada. Toilets at the workers’ colonies often do not have water, and medical facilities are usually absent in and around the sugar mills. There have been cases where migrant women who consulted doctors and hospitals in the region regarding infections were pushed to get hysterectomies.

    Focus and Factoids by Darren Gens.