This story is the second of Climate Home News’ four-part series “The human cost of sugar”, supported by the Pulitzer Center.
Karan Gautam Wavhale, 20, wanted to join the Indian Army, but it was not to be. Instead, he became a labourer, travelling over 200km from his home in Koyal, in Maharashtra’s Beed district, to toil in the sugar fields of Karnataka.
He is one of millions who migrate with the sugar season each year. Heatwaves, drought and floods brought by climate change make the working conditions increasingly harsh. And when yields are low, many workers get trapped with debts they cannot repay.
“It is about survival,” Wavhale told Climate Home News. “Due to water shortages several months each year, there is just no work for us here… there is no option for us but to migrate.
“It is not just the story of our village. There are dozens of villages like ours.”
Climate Home News visited Koyal, about 450km from India’s financial capital Mumbai, in August. The villagers were preparing for the upcoming sugarcane harvest season in October. Here, climate change is worsening the already harsh conditions for workers.
Most of the village’s 2,500 people travel to neighbouring states Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh or western Maharashtra for seasonal work in sugarcane fields. There are no other jobs for them in Koyal and many residents hold government-issued Below Poverty Line (BPL) cards.
India is the world’s largest producer and consumer of sugar and the second-largest exporter. 50 million farmers are involved in India’s sugar industry, cultivating sugarcane in an area spanning almost five million hectares (50,000 sq km).
According to the Indian government, during last year’s sugar season more than 500 million metric tonnes of sugarcane were produced in the country. It is a record that the government is celebrating, but it comes at a high cost to vulnerable migrant labourers.
More and more, these migrants have to work in scorching heat – temperatures exceeded 46C in Maharashtra in April. This takes a severe toll on their physical and mental health, leading to extreme fatigue, anaemia and joint problems as well as depression and anxiety, according to a report by Oxfam India.
Workers prepare the fields, sow seeds, irrigate the crops, cut them with sickles and load the cane onto tractors for transport to the sugar mills in the region. The days last between 13 and 16 hours, over a 4-5 month season.
Sampat Lakshman, a 49-year-old migrant labourer, told Climate Home News that he and his colleagues work day and night during the sugarcane harvest season.
“If we cut the sugarcane during the day, we have to stay till late at night to load it in [the] trucks. There’s no timetable of any sort… there’s no time to get tired,” said Lakshman.
Labourers are frequently injured by a misplaced machete, heavy load or vehicle accident. Snake bites are common. In extreme cases, some suffer permanent disability, amputation or even death.
Wavhale’s younger brother Sachin was killed in a devastating vehicle collision in 2021.
“We were returning home in a vehicle which ferries workers. The driver tried to avoid an accident. [Because of this] several people fell off the vehicle… when the driver reversed the car, the vehicle crushed my brother’s head,” Wavhale told Climate Home. Sachin’s name was scribbled on the wall of his small, poorly lit home in Koyal.
“Several people suffered injuries in the accident, three people including my brother died on the spot,” he said. “One died a few months later due to injuries.”
Raghu Govind Patwade of Beed district suffered spinal injuries in 2016 when a tyre of a tractor trolley drove over him while he was resting in a sugarcane field in Karnataka. Although he survived, it has not been possible for him to work since then.
“I suffered multiple fractures including one on my hip. Since then, I have been bedridden. I can’t work now and I am stuck at home. I have a bag attached to pass urine,” he told Climate Home News.
“There are deep-rooted concerns in the way the [sugar industry] functions, regarding human rights violations, migrant labour and the living conditions [of labourers], child labour and child marriages, and women’s rights,” said Pooja Adhikari, Business Global Coordinator, Global Value Chains at Oxfam Germany, who has carried out extensive research into the industry.
The labourers in Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh told Climate Home that when they work in the fields there are hardly any facilities for them, whether it is food, water, toilets, healthcare or electricity.
The sugar mill provides some materials for makeshift shelters from rainfall, extreme heat or cold, Lakshman said. Their earnings are “not enough to fill the stomach but only to ensure that we don’t starve”.
According to the report by Oxfam India, “the tents are small and inadequate to give complete shelter” and “do not have water, electricity supply or toilets.”
In Maharashtra around 1.5 million people migrate each year with their children, according to Oxfam. Of those, nearly 500,000 migrate from Beed district, the hiring hub for cane cutters.
Migrant labourers are integral to sugarcane harvesting, Mantare Hanuman, a social activist in Maharashtra, told Climate Home News. “It is labour-intensive work… it requires labour at every step, whether it is sowing or harvesting,” he said. Machines are expensive and rarely used.
During the dry season in Beed district, from November to May, villages face severe seasonal unemployment. Wavhale, who left school when he was 15, said nobody wants to stay behind and work in the fields in Koyal, because they are paid close to nothing – a mere $1-2 per day.
Once the labourers migrate, their villages are left deserted. About 200,000 children younger than 14 accompany their parents during the cutting season and live with them in temporary huts, missing school.
“I know that their education suffers but I have no option but to take them with us,” said Lata Chandrasen Patole, a resident of Paargaon in Beed district. “There is no one else to take care of [them], [provide them with] food and [look out for their] safety.”
Hanuman said parents fear their daughters will face physical and sexual abuse if they are left behind. Many children drop out of school altogether at a young age and join their parents in the fields, he said.
The migrant labourers and their families rely on credit to get through the year. They borrow money from labour contractors, known as mukadams, who play an integral role in India’s sugar industry. Mukadams act as the middlemen between labourers, farmers and sugar mills.
Mukadams help labourers find work on the fields and offer informal credit for displacement and living costs, under strict conditions. They hire labourers, usually as married couples, through informal contracts and pay them in instalments.
Labourers negotiate payment based on their personal situation: medical needs, whether they are married and how many children they have. An advance is then paid, usually to the men, based on the amount of crop to be harvested by the couple. If crops are destroyed by floods or heatwaves, their advance (and final payment) is lower.
“Once that happens they get trapped in a vicious cycle of debt, due to high interest rates, and their condition is akin to those of slaves. There is no one to listen to them,” said Yogesh Pande, an independent advocate for the welfare of sugar farmers.
The mukadams control who gets paid and when. After his accident, Patwade was supposed to receive compensation from the sugar mill to help pay for hospitals. “But I never got it. It was siphoned off by the mukadam,” he said.
The money Lakshman and his three relatives earn in the fields is not enough to feed their family of seven. “That is why we have to rely on [the] advance from contractors… We have to repay our debt,” he said. His debt stands at 100,000 rupees ($1,200).
High interest rates
Mukadams typically provide loans to labourers at 50-60% interest rates, compared to the lower interest rates of 5-10% provided by banks, said Raju Shetti, a former member of India’s parliament and president of Swabhimani Shetkari Sanghatana, an advocacy group for farmers and labourers. “They make money while everyone else loses,” Shetti said.
The fall in harvest yields means many labourers are unable to repay their loans to the mukadams. To make up the shortfall, they have to return for the next season or bring more relatives to work. “If this becomes a regular feature, they will be stuck in a cycle of heavy interest and debt,” said Mahadev Chunche, associate professor at the Kumbhalkar College of Social Work in Maharashtra.
One mukadam, who spoke to Climate Home on the condition of anonymity, dismissed claims of exploitation. He said it is labourers who take excess money in advance, spend it on alcohol and then cry foul.
“In fact, mill owners give us very little in advance and ask contractors like me to bring labourers,” he said. “Now labourers want their money in advance to secure their season while I only get paid at the end of the season. To ensure a steady supply of labourers I have to take money with heavy interest. How can I be blamed?”
In the meantime, labourers like Wavahle continue to toil in the sugar fields in harsh conditions. “Extreme heat or harsh winter cold is a reality for me but I have to work to survive,” he said.
Reporting by Mayank Aggarwal and Arvind Shukla. Photography by Meenal Upreti. The Pulitzer Center supported this project with a reporting grant as part of its Your Work/Environment initiative.