On a spur road of India’s National Highway 48, a row of tractors stood in front of the Kille Dharur bus depot. Each tractor hauled trailers loaded with pots and pans, firewood, stacks of metal boxes, cots, motorbikes, and even scrawny goats.

In the first trailer sat five married couples. Among them was Sonal Pawar, 19, nursing her infant. Her newlywed sister Kajal, who looked about 15, unwrapped the lunch packets. The reddish-brown dye of the wedding henna was still faintly visible on her palms; she’d been married for six days.

“You can call it a gate-cane,” said Sonal, describing her sister’s wedding that, like her own, was arranged and solemnised in less than 30 hours. The wedding culminated in the packed trailer that transported the married couples from their village in Maharashtra’s historically drought-affected Marathwada region to Solapur in the lush western sugar belt. It would be their marital home and worksite for the next six months.

“Gate-cane”– loaned from the English words “gate” and “sugarcane” – is a term used colloquially in the water-starved villages of Marathwada that rely heavily on annual cycles of sugarcane labour migration. In commonplace vocabulary and practice, the term “gate-cane” refers to “shortcut” weddings fixed following the peak drought months in the region in the run-up to, or during, the cane harvesting season.

Since the 1970s, persistent droughts, frequent crop failures, and high unemployment have pushed the region’s local labour force into a dire situation, compelling them to migrate annually to the surrounding canefields.

The gate-cane wedding practice is modelled on hiring practices in the labour-intensive sugarcane industry, where recruitments take place in husband-wife pairs, referred to as a koyta – literally, sickle. With marriage, adolescent girls like Sonal and Kajal are transformed into wives and koyta workers.

Credit: Reetika Revathy Subramanian.

Situated in India’s richest state Maharashtra, the poorly irrigated and dry rain-shadow belt of Marathwada, encompassing the districts of Aurangabad, Jalna, Beed, Parbhani, Nanded, Hingoli, Osmanabad and Latur, is often touted as the “epicentre of India’s agrarian crisis”. Over the years, water has remained the single-most explosive social, political, and economic issue in the region, and cyclical drought has engulfed every aspect of the village economy.

Running in a parallel timeframe, there has been a record push for industrial sugarcane production throughout Maharashtra, especially in the western Desh region, encompassing the districts of Sangli, Kolhapur, Pune, Satara, Solapur, and Ahmednagar. Sugarcane production has grown sevenfold in the last five decades, going from an average of 11 million tonnes in the 1960s to 75 million tonnes in the 2010s.

In the months following my conversation with the Pawar sisters, I met several other cane harvesters, whose wedding accounts mirrored a shared pattern: quick-fix arrangements with few guests, a modest dowry exchange, and a prompt departure for the canefields. These spartan weddings were so popular that even frontline workers, school teachers, and state officials routinely used “gate-cane” as a noun, rather than an adjective, to describe such weddings – “gate-cane kele”, they did a gate-cane.

“I’m not sure if it’s Hindi, Marathi or English,” said a child protection officer. “But it’s quite unique to the region and the sugarcane industry.” Different stakeholders conjured up different etymologies of the two borrowed words to describe the undated practice: “shortcut”, “urgent”, “jhatpat” (instant), “fast entry”, all indicating a quick-fix arrangement that involved no printed invitation cards, no mandap, no band-baaja and no guests.

Outside of the marital idiom, the term gate-cane has its origins in the sugar supply chain. It was used to refer to “unregistered cane” that is sold directly by small farmers to private markets. In practice, the sugarcane farmers were bound by the sugar commissionerate to register their projected cane harvest with the mills before the onset of the harvest season to ensure proper sugar procurement. At this time, the mill owners negotiated a fixed price with the farmers based on the Fair and Remunerative Price set by the state government.

It was the responsibility of the mills to fix and manage the trucks that would deliver the loaded cane stalks from the farms to the mills. This process would take anywhere between three hours and 72 hours, and the trucks were sent at the whim of the factories. The nature of the sugarcane crop was such that as soon as it was cut, it had to be pressed and processed in the sugar mills.

The Fair and Remunerative Price was based not on the tonnage of the stalks cut and delivered, but on the recovery of sugar from the cane. Time was indeed money in this industry, which was controlled by the mills and regulated by the government. Several farmers, thus, circumvented this mill-centred practice by selling their produce directly in the open market to nearby private mills for higher prices. This direct farm-to-market agricultural supply chain model, that evades intermediaries, is globally referred to as “farm gate marketing” or “farmgate sales”.

Like the gate-cane produce, the gate-cane weddings followed the rhythm and flow of the sugar supply chain. Most weddings involved underage brides and grooms from the villages of Marathwada, which meant that these marriages were unregistered in government books. As per the government mandates, marriage registration wasn’t mandatory. Labour migration records weren’t maintained by the local governments either.

Similarly, time, just like gate-cane produce, plays a big role in such weddings that have been designed to create new koytas. While the farmers earned their income based on how much sugar had been recovered by the mills, the koytas earned their wages based on how many trucks had been loaded by their gang. On the days when the mills did not send the empty trucks to collect the fresh stalks, the harvesters did not earn a wage. In the same way, even if one koyta failed to cut enough cane, the wages of all other koytas in the same gang would suffer.

A worker cuts sugarcane in a field in Degaon village in Solapur district in December 2015. Credit: Reuters.

In the Pawar family, Kajal’s wedding was fixed six days before the harvest season in October 2020. Most often, alliances were fixed on the canefields during the harvest season. These weddings were planned on sugar time – between the moment the loaded trucks left the fields, and the empty trucks returned for another round of cane collection. There was no set time for this delivery cycle, but it took anywhere from a few hours to a few days.

For the koytas, this is a short period of rest when they do not have to cut cane until the old stock has been loaded. The brief period between the trucks crossing the factory gates, delivering the cane, and returning to the fields, is enough time for arranging and conducting weddings, said an official from the Dharur police station.

Take cane harvester Usha Namdeo’s case for instance. As the eldest among three siblings in a Dalit household, Namdeo had accompanied her parents to the canefields since she was eight. Initially, she took care of her siblings and assisted in the daily chores. Later, she began to cut cane with her parents. An early entry into the world of cane had meant an early exit from school.

In 2018, at the age of 14, Namdeo’s family found her a match in a canefield in Belgaum. Her husband, Shyam, then 17, was a part of the same gang that had been put together by the contractor. Years of severe drought in his own village had forced him to migrate with his family at an early age.

Interestingly, in the gate-cane weddings that were fixed back in the villages, families often met for the first time on the day of the wedding. In those arrangements, the initial scoping of brides and grooms was undertaken through existing kin networks; sometimes, the contractor offered his advice.

In contrast, in gate-cane weddings such as Namdeo’s, the families often met directly in the canefield. There were no prevailing kin relations involved. Yet, the families would get to know each other for longer after working and living together in the canefield. “Our families took us to a nearby temple where we exchanged garlands,” Namdeo said. “The farmer gave us some cash to buy meat and drinks in the evening.”

After the ceremony, the duo started working as a separate koyta in exchange for a lump sum from the same labour contractor. A separate tent was erected on the field that she shared with her husband. Namdeo cooked with her mother-in-law and assisted her in collecting water and fuel. She also tied the cane stalks and loaded the trucks for the remaining hours of the day. The money she earned with her husband was added to her in-laws’ income basket. In return, Namdeo’s parents didn’t have to pay a dowry and were no longer directly accountable for her safety, security and living expenses.

Reetika Revathy Subramanian is a PhD Candidate and Gates Cambridge Scholar at the University of Cambridge Centre for Gender Studies. She runs the Climate Brides podcast.

This article is an excerpt from a peer-reviewed research paper published in the Climate and Development journal. You can read the original paper here.

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