Millions of people migrate each year to work in India’s sugar fields under extreme heat, harsh conditions and debt bondage
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.