5 Key Takeaways from Study on Sustainability in Sugar Value Chains

A farm-to-mill analysis of sugar value chains in Uttar Pradesh…

India—the second largest producer of sugar in the world—supports an enormous number of jobs. The production process, however, is marred with various social and environmental challenges. Oxfam India’s study Human Cost of Sugar – a ‘farm to mill’ assessment of sugar supply chain in Uttar Pradesh is an attempt to understand the complex issue and how it affects the key stakeholders involved.

The study that was conducted to understand challenges in sugar value chain in five districts of the State, focuses on small and marginal farmers as well as farm workers and especially women. Designed to engage with all key stakeholders in the process to get a holistic perspective on sustainability issues, the study was undertaken in five districts with high sugarcane producing record—Meerut, Saharanpur, Bareilly, Lakhimpur Kheri and Muzaffarnagar.

Of all the key stakeholders directly involved in sugar value chains—farmers, farm workers, sugar mills, cane societies, Cane Development and Sugar Industry Department, companies buying sugar, civil societies and trade unions—women farmers bear most severe brunt, found the study. Farming in these areas is still a taboo for women. Generally, they are not allowed to participate in active farming activities, if they do, owning to circumstances, they are not treated as farmers instead their role mostly stays confined to being that of a side help.

Five Key Findings From The Study

  1. Plight of women farmers: Working in sugar cane farms is considered taboo for women in the community. For small and marginal farmers, who are largely dependent on the labour of their family members, women participate in sugarcane cultivation. Also, women, farmers with or without land ownership have limited decision making powers.
  2. Faulty measurements leading to less income: As high as 60% of the farmers, interviewed during the study, said that their basic quota of sugarcane supply is usually less than their actual produce by anywhere between 150-220 quintals. This they said is because of faulty surveys resulting in decreased income by Rs 48,000 to Rs 72,000.
  3. Delay in receipt of supply tickets and unfair weighing practices: Approximately 70-90% farmers said that they are often forced to sell the cane to local jaggery producing units at lower price due to delays in receipt of supply tickets. While 90% of the farmers said to have faced unfair weighing of cane at the mill gates or the collection centres. 70% of farmers interviewed also complained of delay, as long as one year, in receiving payment from the mills.
  4. Absence or no knowledge of active trade unions: The farmers interviewed during the study, lamented inaction from the concerned authorities. The existing grievance redressal mechanisms are ineffective, they said. Only 15% of farmers admitted to any knowledge of Trade Unions, rest were oblivious of existence of any union body to defend their rights.
  5. Exploitation of natural resources: Abundant availability of water in the region has led to over-exploitation of ground water since water conservation practices are not followed by the farmers. Sugar mills and distilleries in the region are also flouting laws by discharging untreated effluents into water bodies and hence polluting it. During the study, farmers in the target area of a private sugar mill in Lakhimpur Kheri accounted for damaged paddy fields and cattle death due to discharge of untreated effluent by the mill.

Wretched Life of Farm Workers

The report also highlights that the farmers generally do not practice any documentation for the farm workers they employ. Their meager wages vary between Rs 200- Rs 400 for men and Rs 80-Rs 200 for women as against the state Government specified minimum wages of Rs 293, Rs 322 and Rs 361 for unskilled, semi-skilled and skilled workers.

The farm workers, mostly daily wage earners, also complained not getting payments on time. 81% of the daily wage farm workers interviewed said that they face a delay of anywhere between 10-15 days after completion of their work while the situation of contractual workers is much worse who were mostly found to be in situation of bondage following heavy loans. Conditions of forced labour, abuse, non-payment of salaries at the end of the season (6-8 months) and false promises by contractors were found to be prevalent.

These inefficient and unethical practices in the sugar value chain that has come to fore during the course of this study, is a matter of grave concern especially for the food and beverage giants who are committed to fair and transparent practices. Multinational companies are gradually realizing the need for transparency, sustainability, commitments, and human rights assessments for agricultural commodities. However, smaller Indian companies are yet to take on transparency and sustainability as a priority in their supply-chains.

This Oxfam India study aims at spotlighting issues of import that concerns every direct or indirect beneficiary of the sugarcane supply chain. Consumers using end products must take in cognisance these factors and start holding the companies accountable for their actions. It’s essential to be aware of the process—who is producing your food, where and in what conditions—to pave way for fair market practices.

Oxfam India’s study aims to establish a traceable, sustainable and fair supply chain of sugar via a holistic approach entailing involvement of all relevant stakeholders.

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