The Plight of Female Sugarcane Cutters in Maharashtra

by Elsa Rollier

India is the second largest sugar producer in the world and the state of Maharashtra alone accounts for almost a third of that production (Rajagopalan & Inzamam, 2024). Maharashtra provides sugar for multiple countries, as well as multinational companies such as Coca-Cola or Pepsi (Rajagopalan & Inzamam, 2024). However, this huge industry relies on an abusive labor system.

As Oxfam Germany’s Business Global Coordinator Pooja Adhikari explains: “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” (Shukla, Aggarwal & Upreti, 2022). Indeed, the labor system in Maharashtra’s sugar industry is extremely abusive towards its workers. Sugar laborers do not receive wages, but an advance from their employers at the start of each harvest season, which lasts around 6 months (Rajagopalan & Inzamam, 2024). This advance typically represents around $1800 for one couple (Rajagopalan & Inzamam, 2024), and the interest rate of these loans are high, as contractors usually lend money to workers with a 50 to 60% interest rate (Shukla, Aggarwal & Upreti, 2022). The workers then have to pay back that advance with their work in the fields and also have to pay a fee in order to miss work, even for medical reasons (Rajagopalan & Inzamam, 2024). And this system is only getting reinforced. As Narayan Gaikwad, a member of the farmer’s association All India Kisan Sabha notes: “In the past four to five years, the instances of debt bondage have increased a lot” (Jain, 2023).

One of the consequences of this abusive labor system is the pressure put on female sugar laborers to get hysterectomies, a surgery to remove the uterus (Rajagopalan & Inzamam, 2024). Hysterectomies are routinely performed worldwide but are not common for women under 40 years old (Rajagopalan & Inzamam, 2024). In India, such surgeries are more common for instance as a birth control measure; but in Maharashtra, women are pushed by various actors (their contractors, other sugar field workers and sometimes doctors) to get this surgery (Rajagopalan & Inzamam, 2024). This operation is very widespread amongst women working in the sugar fields, and a local government report revealed that out of 82,200 female sugar cane workers working in the district of Beed in Maharashtra, approximately one in five had a hysterectomy (Rajagopalan & Inzamam, 2024). These operations are paid by labor brokers lending money for the surgeries in order to treat ailments like painful periods, which can keep women from working effectively in the fields (Rajagopalan & Inzamam, 2024). Women therefore “seek hysterectomies in hopes of stopping their periods, as a drastic form of uterine cancer prevention or to end the need for routine gynecological care” (Rajagopalan & Inzamam, 2024).

After undergoing a hysterectomy, women then continue their work without having to deal with medical visits or menstruation issues in an environment where they have no access to toilets, shelters or even running water (Rajagopalan & Inzamam, 2024). As sugar industry worker Gangabai Prakash Shingare explains: “I have worked in Maharashtra and Karnataka but I have not once seen a toilet or bathroom for women. Men can walk to the nearest pond and bathe but what do we do? Early in the morning, when it is still dark, we walk into dense sugarcane fields. That is the only time and place we have to manage our businesses” (Sah, 2022). Women do not have access to menstrual hygiene and healthcare, for menstrual products are expensive and complicated to find and take care of; and women in the fields typically have to use reused cloth that they wash by hand during their periods (Rajagopalan & Inzamam, 2024). Most of the women working in the fields are not educated about these operations and are left with little choice (Rajagopalan & Inzamam, 2024).

However, these surgeries are not without risk for women, especially under 40 years old (Rajagopalan & Inzamam, 2024). Indeed, women encounter short-term risks such as blood clots or abdominal pain, but also long-term risks such as osteoporosis or higher chances of heart disease due to early menopause, for a hysterectomy often involves the removal of the ovaries as well (Rajagopalan & Inzamam, 2024). Furthermore, in addition to the health consequences, they also have to pay back the surgery, which increases their debt, keeping them even longer in the fields (Rajagopalan & Inzamam, 2024). Young girls in Maharashtra are also pushed into marriage because working in the fields to cut sugar cane as a couple pays more than a man working alone (Rajagopalan & Inzamam, 2024). Also, when children accompany their parents in the fields, parents have to support them, which is why families usually try to get their daughters to marry young, and contractors also sometimes pressure girls to get married (Rajagopalan & Inzamam, 2024). As associate professor at Wardha‘s Kumbhalkar College of Social Work Mahadev Chunche points out, sexual harassment is a big issue for female sugar laborers (Shukla et al., 2022). Out of the 400 women working in Maharashtra’s sugar industry that Chunche interviewed, almost 80% of them spoke about the molestation, rape, or sexual harassment they faced by male workers, intermediaries, or drivers (Shukla et al., 2022). Women are also pushed to stay silent: “Sometimes the pressure is from the labour contractors not to speak but the main reason is their poverty. They fear that if they report [the abuse], it will bring disrepute, they will get no more work and there will be no one to marry them.” (Shukla et al., 2022). A study by researchers from Symbiosis International University in 2020 affirmed the living and working conditions of these women as “violate basic human rights” (Shukla et al., 2022).

The working conditions in the fields are extremely harsh. Laborers typically work until midnight, sleep under tents on thin mattresses, and women wake up before their families, around 4 a.m., to take care of the chores and prepare for the day before going back to work (Rajagopalan & Inzamam, 2024). A workday typically lasts between 13 to 16 hours, during which workers plant seeds, irrigate crops, cut sugar canes and load them for transportation to the sugar mills (Shukla, Aggarwal & Upreti, 2022). The workers have to work in extreme heat, which severely impacts their physical and mental health, and can lead them to develop troubles such as anemia, anxiety, or depression (Shukla, Aggarwal & Upreti, 2022). These conditions have also deteriorated because of the impacts of climate change, which led more crops to fail and made fewer jobs accessible for small scale-farmers or agriculture, leading even more workers to migrate (Jain, 2023). In addition, by engendering droughts or heatwaves, climate change also led contractors to lend less money to workers, when those events led to the destruction of crops (Shukla, Aggarwal & Upreti, 2022). Due to the decrease of sugar cane yields, more workers are coming back to the sugar fields for multiple seasons (Jain, 2023). Along with the decline of the harvests, the rise of sugar cutting machines might also further degrade the working conditions of the laborers in the field, leaving them “with much less work and no bargaining power” (Jain, 2023). Indeed, the contractors do not keep track of how much sugar the workers cut, nor establish official work contracts, and claim after every season that workers did not pay back their advance (Rajagopalan & Inzamam, 2024). This type of arrangement has been defined by the United Nations labor agency and workers’ rights group as forced labor (Rajagopalan & Inzamam, 2024).

This abusive system is not a secret. Sugar producers, as well as the companies buying from them, are aware of such arrangements (Rajagopalan & Inzamam, 2024). As mentioned before, the labor from these women and families provides sugar to companies like Pepsi or Coca-Cola which both confirmed they were buying sugar in Maharashtra, and mostly use it for products distributed in India (Rajagopalan & Inzamam, 2024). In addition to supporting this abusive system, these companies are also aware of the conditions of the sugar laborers. In 2019, an investigation was launched by a Maharashtra state lawmaker regarding the high number of hysterectomies among female sugar-cane cutters (Rajagopalan & Inzamam, 2024). After surveying thousands of women, researchers reported that workers faced horrible working conditions (Rajagopalan & Inzamam, 2024). They established a link between the sugar industry and the high level of hysterectomies performed in the state, which they tied to the inability for women to take time off during their pregnancy or for medical appointments, which leaves them with no choice but this surgery (Rajagopalan & Inzamam, 2024). In 2019, Coca-Cola also issued another report from Arche Advisors audit firm, which visited 123 farms in Maharashtra and another state (Rajagopalan & Inzamam, 2024). They revealed they had found children workers in approximately half of the farms, who either migrated along with their parents, or were directly working in the fields cutting, carrying and bundling sugar cane (Rajagopalan & Inzamam, 2024). The firm noted that the suppliers of Coca-Cola did not provide any toilets or shelters to the workers (Rajagopalan & Inzamam, 2024). Therefore, the report called on the mills to provide these basic elements, as well as the minimum wage to workers (Rajagopalan & Inzamam, 2024).

These companies have publicly condemned such systems. In another corporate report in 2019, Coca-Cola affirmed it was supporting a program to “gradually reduce child labor” in India (Rajagopalan & Inzamam, 2024). The company published, like Pepsico, codes of conduct that prohibits business partners and suppliers to use forced labor or child labor (Rajagopalan & Inzamam, 2024). Pepsico also issued a statement saying that: “The description of the working conditions of sugar-cane cutters in Maharashtra is deeply concerning […] We will engage with our franchisee partners to conduct an assessment to understand the sugar-cane cutter working conditions and any actions that may need to be taken.” (Rajagopalan & Inzamam, 2024). Major buyer companies like Coca-Cola and Pepsico claim they hold their suppliers to strict standards of labor rights, however these same companies rarely monitor the numerous farms their supply chains rely on (Rajagopalan & Inzamam, 2024). They instead rely on the sugar mill owners that supply them, but these owners claim they do not employ the workers themselves. They pay contractors to do so and therefore have no influence on the treatment of those workers (Rajagopalan & Inzamam, 2024). These contractors often do not have any qualifications in terms of employment and simply distribute the money of the mill owners and consequently cannot oversee working conditions (Rajagopalan & Inzamam, 2024). One of the only changes made was the creation of a rule requiring civil surgeons (the top health officials of the district) to approve hysterectomies, in order to prevent some doctors to profit off unnecessary operations; but the surgeries on younger women still continue, and little overall change has been made (Rajagopalan & Inzamam, 2024). Indeed, the sugar industry in Maharashtra relies on that system. As Sanjay Khatal, the managing director of a sugar mill lobbying group explains, for mill owners to provide benefits to workers, it would require them to be seen as direct employers, which would raise costs and compromise the entire system: “It is the very existence of the industry which can come into question” (Rajagopalan & Inzamam, 2024). Therefore, these brands keep on profiting from a violent labor system, exploiting children and pushing women to get unnecessary hysterectomies (Rajagopalan & Inzamam, 2024).

As Article 12 of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) states, the discrimination of women in regards to health services is prohibited, and states are obliged to provide appropriate services for women’s reproductive health (Kanodia, 2023). States thus need to provide access to healthcare and services by trained professionals to every woman regardless of their status (Kanodia, 2023). In a recent case in India (Dr. Narendra Gupta versus Union of India & Ors) dating from April 2023, Dr. D.Y. Chandrachud, the Chief Justice of India (CJI) declared: “The right to health is an intrinsic element of the right to life under Article 21 of the Constitution. Life, to be enjoyed in all its diverse elements, must be based on robust conditions of health. There has been a serious violation of the fundamental rights of the women who underwent unnecessary hysterectomies”, and also said each state should set a hysterectomy monitoring committee to oversee medical institutions that perform unnecessary hysterectomies (Kanodia, 2023). Unnecessary hysterectomies performed under pressure on uninformed women are a violation of women’s personal liberty and fundamental rights (Kanodia, 2023). In order for women to be fully informed about the procedure, they will need to have access to information about the post-effects of the surgery, as well as about other alternative treatments (Kanodia, 2023).

As principal researcher for IIED Ritu Bhardwaj claims, the situation of these female sugar workers could be seen as a consequence of the current climate crisis (Mishra, 2024). According to her, the loss and damage fund established during COP27 in 2022 to compensate people for “irreversible losses” due to climate change should be used to compensate these female workers as well: “When we talk about the losses incurred and the damage done by climate change, we’re not just talking about flooded apartments in New York, or scorched hillsides in Greece. These women’s experiences are also a result of climate change which has decimated their livelihoods, and some of what they have lost – their dignity, good health, in some cases their lives – is difficult to quantify” (Mishra, 2024). For instance, the money could be used to enhance access to healthcare or provide more social protection: “By prioritising direct cash or benefit transfers to the most vulnerable communities, including leveraging technology and financial inclusion, the fund can ensure swift support reaches those in need” (Mishra, 2024).

Works Cited

Jain, S. (2023, February 7). In Maharashtra, sugarcane workers suffer debt bondage as climate change ruins crops. te-change-ruins-crops

Kanodia, A. (2023, October 22). The tall sugarcane in Beed hides a bitter truth. NewsClick.

Mishra, S. (2024, March 12). In a hotter world, these women are left with little option but sterilization. The Independent. erilization-b2511174.html

Rajagopalan, M., & Inzamam, Q. (2024, March 24). The brutality of sugar: Debt, Child marriage and hysterectomies. The New York Times. ies.html?searchResultPosition=23

Sah, P. (2023, November 10). Why women sugarcane cutters of Maharashtra seek needless hysterectomies. BehanBox. hysterectomies/

Shukla, A., Aggarwal, M., & Upreti, M. (2022, December 20). Migrant labourers suffer exploitation in India’s sugar fields. Climate Home News. -sugar-fields/#:~:text=More%20and%20more%2C%20these%20migrants,a%20report%20by%2 0Oxfam%20India.

Shukla, A., Aggarwal, M., Upreti, M., & Bhatia, G. (2022, December 21). India’s female cane cutters face child marriage and hysterectomy. Climate Home News. -and-hysterectomy/

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