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Sugar, smoke and survival

Following a thick smoke of cloud coming out of chimneys, I reached a different world. It was filled with smoke, sugar and the smell of struggle and survival. Laborers from different age groups seemed occupied with different tasks. While the men were responsible for mixing the hot liquid, the women were in-charge of machines. The children were either roaming in the sugarcane fields half naked, or were helping the parents. It was a small world in itself where they worked, ate, lived and slept. Sadly it reflected the harsh realities of life for these seasonal migrants from different villages of Madhya Pradesh who came to Gujarat for making sugar.

The factory remains functional 24 hours, where people worked almost 12 hours on an average. They live in sub-human conditions on work sites, there are no health clinics or school and it lacks basic amenities and sanitation facilities. The makeshift homes are made of leaves and bamboos, which can barely hold wind or sunlight. Children of these seasonal migrants never see a school, and between the age of 10 and 14 become bonded labors. The women use the leftovers dry husk from the sugarcane as the fuel for cooking their food. Their everyday struggle is to cook meals twice for their family. Thick breads and potatoes is all they can all afford as meals, and the children fulfill their desire of eating sweets by chewing sugarcane.

These workers remain involved in the whole cycle: from growing the sugarcane, to cutting the crop, extracting the juice and converting it into jaggery and other products. These labors are paid meager wages and they know little that they were being exploited. Also, the risk of working with smokes and machines without any protective gear are hazardous to their health. Women and child migrants were even more vulnerable, facing serious lack of security and no insurance in case of any mishaps. Proving their identity is one of the core issues impoverished migrants face when they arrive in a new place, a problem that can persist for years or even decades after they migrate.

Internal migrants in India are expected to touch 600 million in the 2021 census, over half the global figure of 840 million. About two out of ten Indians are internal migrants who have moved across district or state lines—a rate notable for the sheer numbers who move within a country with a population that tops 1.2 billion. The estimate of 600 million internal migrants, of course, far exceeds the total estimated migrants from India to other countries, which is estimated at just 13.4 million. Women constitute 80% of total internal migrants and there isn't enough data on women migrant labor because of the assumption that most women migrate because of marriage. This assumption blocks further analysis of the women migrants engaged in paid labor. No identity, no rights and no future: this is the story of every Indian migrant.

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