Atmaram Vaibhise travels to Kolhapur in western Maharashtra with his family every year after Diwali. Once there, he and his wife work in sugarcane fields until April -- their 14-hour workdays starting at four every morning. They chop the cane, stack it on bullock carts before transporting the load to nearby factories. They get paid Rs 350 per tonne of sugarcane for this, earning anywhere between Rs 40,000-50,000 by the end of the crushing season.
So, why do they make the journey to Kolhapur every year? "Because there is no work to be found in my village," the 28-year-old agricultural labourer laments. "There is no water either, and we live in very poor conditions."
Atmaram Vaibhise hails from Nambewadi in Marathwada's Beed, a district that was hit by drought four times in the last five years. He even takes his cattle along on the long journey to Kolhapur because there is nobody in his village to look after them.
Their children do not go to school. "We cannot afford to pay for their education, and what's the use of that anyway? They go to school for a month or so in our village, and after that they stay here while we go to work," the farm labourer says.
Atmaram Vaibhise is not the only agricultural labourer who goes looking for greener pastures every year. Vaishali Hiparkar and her husband also migrated from Pandharpur district to Kolhapur recently in search of a livelihood. They live in a grass hut that has neither toilet facilities nor a gas connection. What they have, however, is the burden of a Rs 70,000 loan taken from middlemen in desperate times.
"We are helpless," says she. "As there is no work in our village, we are forced to borrow from middlemen. They then ask us to repay the money by working in somebody else's fields. Everything we earn is given to them, and the cycle continues."
According to the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy, a leading business think-tank, rural India lost out on 9.1 million jobs in 2018. Daily wage workers and agricultural labourers were the worst hit.
Even the educated are not assured of employment in this dismal situation. Although Hange Nandkumar is halfway through college, he has migrated to Kolhapur to cut sugarcane too. "The way things stand, I won't find a job in my village. It does look like I will be working in the fields all my life," he says.
He has spent Rs 50,000 on his education already.
Akash Kamble, who holds an ITI diploma, has been forced into the shoes of a construction labourer due to lack of jobs. "I did not gain anything by getting an education because there is no job available. I spent money on a diploma but finally ended up in this line," he lamented.