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Pandemic induced labour scarcity increases demand for sugarcane harvesting machines in South India

PUNE: Sugarcane growers in southern India are increasingly opting for harvesting machines as they fear the coronavirus crisis will prevent the migrant workforce from returning in time for the October harvest.

The anticipated labour shortage is expected to see farmer entrepreneurs in the sugarcane belt place orders for more than 200 new harvesting machines, each costing over Rs 1 crore.

Maharashtra, the country’s second-largest sugar producing state, employs close to 1 million migrant labours every year to help in sugarcane harvesting. Neighbouring Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, too, engage thousands of such workers in their sugarcane fields.

With most of these labourers having left for home in the wake of the pandemic, and there being travel restrictions to contain the spread of the virus, sugarcane farmers are considering using harvesters this time.

“This is the golden opportunity for sugarcane harvesters as post-Covid, there are possibilities of shortages of harvesting labour. It is estimated that another 200 new harvesters can be added in Maharashtra this year,” Prakash Naiknavare, managing director of All India Co-operative Sugar Factories Federation, said at an industry webinar on Tuesday. “It can promote mechanisation of the harvesting operations.”

Sanjay Khatal, managing director of Maharashtra State Co-operative Sugar Mills Federation, said, “Of the total cane harvested in the state, about 5% cane is harvested using machines. The rest is done by hand by the labour.”

Workers for the sugarcane fields come through contractors who take advance payment for it as early as June-July. A group of 10 to 15 labourers cut can harvest 10-15 tonnes of sugarcane a day. In contrast, a harvester can cut about 100 tonnes of cane in the same time.

According to officials, sugarcane farmers from just the two districts –Sangli and Kolhapur–have already booked 140 harvesting machines this year.

In Maharashtra, the area under sugarcane cultivation has increased to 10.62 lakh hectares for the 2019-20 season, up from 8.22 lakh hectares in the previous season.

Till 2017, the state’s sugar sector had received 297 mechanical harvesters with subsidy received under the Rashtriya Krishi Vikas Yojana (RKVY). However, the following year, harvesters were excluded from the RKVY farm mechanisation scheme in Maharashtra. Meanwhile, many sugarcane growing states are continuing to extend subsidies to sugarcane harvesters under RKVY.

Amol Tope, a Jalna-based agricultural entrepreneur, who owns sugarcane harvester, said, “This year, there is likely to be a shortage of harvesting labour due to the pandemic, while the production of sugarcane is expected to be bumper. We anticipate that at least 200 new harvesters will be purchased by farmers.”

According to Tope, without the subsidy, the pricing of the harvesting machine and its ancillary units, which is about Rs 1 crore to Rs 1.25 crore, does not make it a profitable business venture for individual farmers. The sugar mills, on the other hand, restrain from investing in the harvesters as they remain idle for more than six months in a year.

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