The production of hybrid cottonseed is labour intensive, complex and time-dependent. Unlike other hybrid seeds such as paddy and jowar, cross-pollination work in cottonseed has to be done manually. Each individual flower bud has to be emasculated and pollinated by hand, requiring a large labour force… this activity alone requires about 90 percent of the total labour days.
Thousands of children are employed in cotton fields, not just in Andhra Pradesh, but in Gujarat and Karnataka as well. An Udaipur-based social activist informed me that girls are taken from Rajasthan to Gujarat for work in the fields. Labour contractors fix the wages for the whole season and hand it over to the parents. The girls are then transported by the contractors and the farmers bear the cost of their boarding and lodging - mostly in temporary sheds at the farms. Not only are they forced to work in the farms but what is worse is that the children breathe the polluted fumes emanating from a liberal use of fertilisers and pesticides. They live, eat and sleep in an unhealthy environment with potentially harmful effects on their respiratory as well as reproductive health.
The MV Foundation estimates that in Andhra alone there are 150,000 children in the seven to fourteen age group who are employed in fields -and 90 percent are girls. They are mostly employed in Mahbubnagar and Kurnool districts, where almost 14,000 acres of land is used for hybrid cottonseed production. The report also estimates that if we take the country as a whole, nearly 400,000 children are employed in the cottonseed industry across the country.
Cottonseed production is a lucrative business and is promoted by local (legal and illegal) as well as multinational cottonseed companies. The illegal seed growers are perhaps as many as the legal ones.
Why adults, when children work longer
Adult labour is often substituted with child labour (for reasons well known - young girls and boys cost far less, are more compliant and work longer hours) when farmers and middlemen are confident that the regulatory mechanism is slack.
Almost two and a half decades ago the prevalence of child labour in the carpet industry attracted a lot of national as well as international attention. Efforts were made to get consumers to shun products made from child labour. Similarly child labour in the glass, bangles, brassware and gem polishing industries have been highlighted on and off by the media. Unfortunately as media attention wanes business returns to normal.
The situation in Andhra Pradesh has been a bit different. Organisations like M V Foundation have campaigned for the right of every child to education for almost two decades now. They pioneered the bridge course model to get children out of work and into schools and have kept up the pressure year after year.
But despite the continuous advocacy for the right to education of every child the employment of children (especially girls) in the cottonseed industry continues. Travelling across Andhra Pradesh, it is not very difficult to understand why this happens.
First, the work in cottonseed farms is seasonal and young girls are pulled out of school for six to eight weeks. So, formally, many of these children are enrolled in school. Second, girls are handed over to labour contractors who transport them and house them in temporary sheds. As children are taken from one district to another to work, keeping track of their movement is difficult and localised efforts to do not always succeed preventing the employment of children. Tracking the movement of children across district borders (or even across state borders) is also not so easy and the labour contractors are able to evade detection.
Third, discussions with parents reveal that they feel children are not learning much in schools and given the poor quality of education, a few weeks of absence is not taken very seriously. While they admit that many children who are absent for long periods are not able to cope with the studies and eventually drop out, they also point out that even children who are regular do not learn anything and they also eventually drop out.
Not just in farms, at home too
This is not the only kind of work children do in rural India. Walk into any village to find children working alongside their parents in the fields or joining they parents engaged in wage labour. Girls from poor families work before and after school - cleaning, cooking, washing and minding siblings. They get very little time to study or even for leisure. Boys in Andhra Pradesh told us how they are sent on short-term bondage to pay off loans- their parents’ loans. The electronic media recently highlighted the plight of domestic servants in Hyderabad, where thousands of young girls from impoverished rural households are sent to work in urban areas.
On one level, a state like Andhra Pradesh is celebrated as being in the forefront of the technological revolution, but on another, new myths and practices have emerged wherein children are made to work long hours in miserable conditions and in potentially poisonous environments.
The media needs to track these instances of blatant violation of the human rights of children. Equally, enforcing the Right to Education now demands of the state very stringent action against the nexus of seed companies, farmers and contractors. A sustained campaign is necessary to tackle this problem, with the media and education activists joining hands to ensure children realise they have a right to childhood.