Monday, July 15, 2024
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No secure future for children toiling in sugarcane fields?

How can sugarcane cutters educate their children?’ Perhaps, it is time we consider how this community, which constitutes a large chunk of migrating workers in Maharashtra and which has been associated with the occupation for generations, does not have access to facilities or resources to educate their children. Can these children look beyond a sickle and hope to hold a pen or be in front of a computer?

A common scene that one encounters in a sugarcane field during the cutting season is of adult labourers cutting sugarcane, while their toddlers play on a bullock cart with bullocks, whips, sugarcane and sickles. Slightly older children help with bundling sugar and leaves. Growing up spending time this way for six months every year, the children naturally ‘internalise’ the seemingly obvious fate of being sugarcane cutters themselves someday. Also, the children are often married at 15 or 16 years, following which their lives are perpetually engulfed by debt thanks to the money they are forced to take from contractors to make ends meet. 

Parents are often blamed for the increasing number of school dropouts and child marriages. However, we need to note that this inhumanly strenuous work is turning into inter-generational labour with no way out. On one hand, due to fear of sexual violence and pressure from the community during the six months of migration, girls are married off at an early age. Boys, too, are married early to limit their chances of becoming addicted or befriending bad company.

Very few parents are able to summon the courage to even dream of an educated, independent child who lives elsewhere and has escaped such inter-generational poverty. Hence, parents alone cannot be responsible for this vicious cycle of school dropouts. The children themselves get married when they are underage. There is a need to re-evaluate the system that allows this exploitation.

The labourers often come from castes such as Vanjara, Vanjari, Dhangar, Mali, Maratha Adivasi, Dalit, Kaikadi, Sutar, Teli and Backward Muslims – castes that have traditionally lived with social, religious, political and economic injustice. Traditional, caste-based norms govern the communities and their interactions with the rest of the world. Such norms need to be put under the microscope. The state, meanwhile, needs to evaluate the traditional constraints while framing measures to counter such economic precarity.

Sugarcane labourers reside and work almost 15-20 km inside farmlands, where no schools are accessible. Parents, who migrate with enormous economic precarity and workloads, cannot leave farm work and drop their children at school in the middle of a 14-16 hour workday. Furthermore, children over the age of 12 assist with tying bundles, contributing to the labour required to complete the arduous task of cutting nearly a tonne of sugarcane every day. While parents are easily blamed for children who also eventually become sugarcane cutters, their hands are tied by everyday survival economics.

It is imperative for the state to take up the responsibility of educating the children and building their personalities. State-sponsored hostels for housing, feeding, and educating the children can be one sustainable measure. The hostels also need to be equipped to encourage sports, hobbies and extracurricular skills. A scholarship of Rs 500 to Rs 1000 needs to be meted out every year for educational fees to each child – this can also be extended at the rate of Rs 150 monthly.

For children below 15, a hostel needs to be placed at the source of migration (where labourers come from) within 15 km of their villages. For children above 15, hostels can also be built at the taluka level – the hostels need to be developed to eventually provide opportunities for higher secondary, junior college, and university level education. 

Also, younger children between 5 and 14 years often accompany their parents for sugarcane cutting six months in a year. Providing them with education guarantee cards, a welcome measure, is not enough. While they need to be integrated into the closest zilla parishad (district panchayat) schools, the Education Department also needs to appoint a teacher for every 40 children. The children are migrants and it will take special attention, time and care to instill a sense of security and educational aspiration in them. The hostels will reduce the financial burden on the parents and far fewer children will feel the need to become child labourers.

Lastly, most unskilled labourers within the community are young — their ages range from 15 to 40. For the unskilled workers who participate in sugarcane harvesting, the state needs to introduce skill building courses for gardening, sewing, farming, cooking, driving, electrical work, and so on. Such skills can create alternative job opportunities and aspirations. 

Dnyaneshwar Jadhawar (translated by Rucha Satoor) 

(Courtesy: Charkha Features)