But that's what 100,000 children — of which over 60% are girls — have been doing at cottonseed farms in Andhra, says a report commissioned by the India Committee of the Netherlands (ICN), the International Labour Rights Fund and Eine Welt Netz NRW (OneWorld Net Germany). Titled 'The Price of Childhood', the report has been cited by Max van den Berg of the Party of European Socialists and vice-chair of the development committee in a written question to the European Commission. The question raises the issue of multinational companies fostering child labour by not paying Indian farmers who produce their cottonseed enough to hire adults.
Says Davuluri Venkateswarlu, a researcher who co-authored the report with Oxford University agricultural economist Lucia da Corta, "Our report has established the link between child labour and low procurement price paid by MNCs like Bayer, Monsanto and Syngenta as well as Indian firms like Nuziveedu, Raasi and Ankur Seeds. Unable to pay the local minimum wage of Rs 52 for an adult, farmers advance money to parents who are then bound to send their children to the fields." "The number of child labourers employed on cottonseed farms far exceeds those in the carpet, bangle or diamond-polishing industries," he adds. What's worse is that a majority are girls, points out Magsaysay Award winner Shanta Sinha whose MV Foundation works to eradicate child labour.
"They are primarily used for cross-pollination, a very labour-intensive task in which each individual bud has to be emasculated and pollinated by hand. The girls work like robots under the hot sun, they're paid less than the boys and keep falling sick from exposure to pesticides." The MNCs, on their part, say they have made efforts to discourage use of child labour by imposing penalties on errant farmers and conducting joint inspections with NGOs. But an irate Shanta Sinha, whose NGO withdrew from the Child Labour Eradication Group (CLEG) to protest against the non-implementation of the joint action plan chalked out in 2003, says the seed companies are merely putting up a front.
"The farmers were tipped off by the firms whenever monitoring visits were conducted. And while there has been a reduction in the number of child labourers, it is only because the number of acres under cultivation has come down. Come May, recruitment of kids will start again," she says. According to Davuluri, the seed companies acknowledge that there is child labour in their supply chain. "The problem is they deny that there is any relation between this and the price they pay to cottonseed farmers," he says.