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How migrant farmers turn into sickles every harvest season

Acclaimed Bengali writer Anita Agnihotri's forthcoming novel bears witness to the plight of farmers in Marathwada and western Maharashtra—a story that resonates with the ongoing farmers' protests

A farmer works in his sugarcane field on the outskirts of Ahmedabad, India February 28, 2015. REUTERS/Amit Dave/File Photo.

Every year they left their land. When the harvest was done and winter came, a long season stretched ahead without rain, without irrigation, without crops, with the next precipitation being a long way off. In a concerted effort to stave off the spectre of spending their days without food, Terna and Datu and others like them left the rain shadow of Marathwada in droves to clamber into bullock-carts or tractors or trucks bound for the fertile and fruitful land of western Maharashtra flowing with milk and sugar. Many of them went to neighbouring Karnataka too, but most moved to a different district within the state to harvest sugarcane. Local labourers wouldn’t touch this work, for they weren’t interested in such low wages. So it was Marathwada that provided the workers for the flourishing milk-and-sugar belt.

Farmers sowed sugarcane to supply the hundreds of sugar mills scattered around the area. The mills had to buy the entire crop, which meant procuring the workers for the harvest was not the cultivator’s responsibility. The mills gave the contracts before the harvest season to local mukadams or middlemen, who in turn paid advance fees to lock in the labourers. The payment was made at a persickle rate, with husband and wife adding up to one koyta,the local word for the sickle or knife used to harvest the sugarcane. Those with their own bullock carts were hired to transport the sugarcane; owning a tractor was even better, it commanded a higher payment. Many came with nothing but their sickles, with the farmer providing the carts and the bulls to draw them.

They set off from their villages after their own monsoon crops had been stored at home by the middle of November. They returned before the advent of the rains the following year, splitting their lives into two six-month periods—in their own villages between the monsoon and winter seasons, and then from winter to the end of summer in the shanties next to the sugarcane fields. It was a strange way to live. Sugarcane leaves were stretched across bamboo posts, exposed to the sky, the sides gaping open like tents. The tolis on the unoccupied fields near the mills were like nomads’ camps. There were one or at most two taps for three or four hundred shanties, the women spending hours filling water at these taps in the gaps between work. If the millowner in question were particularly compassionate, there might be a tall lamp-post in the middle of the field—although, needless to add, its beams did not reach every corner.

Potable water and electric light were luxuries in most of the tolis for landless labourers with no bullock carts of their own, which had sprung up near the sugarcane fields, and, sometimes, on the grounds of the mills. Darkness descended on the tolis after dark, which was when the cooking began on fires lit with dry leaves. The fuel and the shanties were both made of those leaves, but though the women knew everything could burn down to ashes if the fire spread, still they sliced their vegetables at twilight without a care in the world. Back home in the village they would cook twice a day, but here they had to make do at night and the next afternoon with whatever they cooked in the evening. For, the women had no time to cook twice a day; like the men, they too had to go to fields at daybreak to harvest the sugarcane, grabbing a bite around one in the afternoon right where they laboured through the day. Jowar bhakris and vegetables made the day before, with pickles. And then back to work.

Writer Anita Agnihotri.
Writer Anita Agnihotri. (Juggernaut Books)

The women returned before darkness fell, for they had to fill water, fetch the kindling, feed the bulls, clean the children. So this was a time they spent in their shanties—not for rest, though, but to work some more. Nor was it time for sleep after the meal and doing the dishes, they had to go back to the fields to continue the harvesting, sometimes taking a lift on the tractors of bullock-carts that were returning empty after transporting the harvested sugarcane to the mills. It was a unique kind of labour, whose cycle had no real room for the legal definition of a break. All of them were pre-paid labourers who had accepted the pay for the entire season already, which meant they were compelled to work as long as they drew breath. The only gap came when the vehicles stacked with sugarcane trundled off to the mills, though not everyone could stop working even then, but at least they could take turns. While the women stretched their legs in the shanties, the men toiled in the fields. Then one set would go off to eat, and some, to rest.

Humans were sickles here, they had no names but numbers. Families were the units for counting sickles, husband and wife adding up to one. If an adult child or brother or brother-in-law was present, the number went up.

A sickle was released only after enough sugarcane has been harvested to recover the advance payment. Had the labourers here been thought of as humans, it wouldn’t have been possible to make them work twenty to twenty-two hours a day.

Not everyone who worked here was a landless labourer though, many of them owned land—two, five, even ten acres. But these were arithmetical numbers only, holding no significance in Marathwada without rain or irrigation. Land that neither received rain for the kharif crop nor irrigation for the rabi crop was inevitably left bare, which didn’t help the owner at all. He still had to shut down his household and leave Marathwada with his wife and children. When the drought continued for successive years it became difficult to feed not just themselves but also the cattle. In any case it was difficult to survive all year on a single crop, and then if the lack of rains prevented even this one crop, all that was left for the farmer was starvation.

Excerpted from the forthcoming novel 'The Sickle' by Anita Agnihotri, translated from the Bengali original 'Kasté' by Arunava Sinha, and published by Juggernaut Books. The book will be available in March 2021. The excerpt has been used with permission from Juggernaut Books.

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