In Sherpur, Laloda, Ganeshpura, Hassanpura and other villages in Idar taluka, the first lot of children has arrived. Their day begins early around 4 am when the cotton flower buds are open and at their tender best. It will end only late in the afternoon. Niramala who does not look any older than 12 says, “I arrived here about a week ago from my village in Dungarpur, Rajasthan. My job is to cross-pollinate the flowers for which I get Rs 40 in a day.”
This Rs 40 is not only less than the minimum wage of Rs 50, but she will also not be paid directly. The contractor or ‘mates’ as they are called here in all probability must have paid her father a lumpsum for employing her as an agricultural labour for a couple of months.
Shaileshbhai Pandya, a worker with the Gujarat Khedut Mazdoor Sanghathan (GKMS) says, “The contractors pocket the money. There is a big difference in what the children should get and what they get.”
The tribal children from Rajasthan primarily in the age group of 10 to 15, come here mainly to work in Sabarkantha and Banaskantha districts of Gujarat. The children work for more than 10 hours everyday and stay in makeshift shelters built in the middle of the farm. There are a good number of girls here and the working conditions make them vulnerable to abuse.
The GKMS campaign against child labour last year has yielded results. The famers now deny that they employ children and the children have also been asked not to talk to anyone. In fact, many children ran away when asked harmless questions such as their name.
Ahmedbhai, of Laloda village has children working in his cotton fields. When asked he responded with, “I don’t employ children for work. The children come with their parents.” Sanju working on the same farm and just a wee bit taller than the cotton plant says, “My parents are in my village in Banswara. I came here all alone.”
Amritbhai Patel, head of the Bharatiya Kisan Sangh in Idar taluka says, “I have not heard of anybody employing children in their farms. If I come to know of any such instance I will tell the farmer to stop it.” Children, meanwhile, keep working in the cotton farms.
The GKMS has been meeting the farmers and telling them to stop employing children. Paulomee Mistry, president GKMS says, “We have repeatedly asked the labour officers to conduct inspections in the farms. We have also started a poster campaign telling people that employing children is illegal.”
However, State Rural Labour Commissioner K Ninama said, “There are hardly any children under the age of 14 working there. We found eight such children a few days back and have sent them back to Rajasthan. We will be conducting inspections every 15 days. I don’t think many children work there.”
Since agricultural work does not come under the list of hazardous occupation children under 14 can be employed provided they do not work for more than three hours preceded by a rest of one hour and have weekly holidays. The employer is also required to keep a register of names and provide medical benefit.
In the Bt Cotton farms these rules are unheard of. For the contractor, the children mean money and for the farmer, they mean more work with less money and more profits. For the children this means no education, strenuous work, being vulnerable to abuse and exploitation. Meanwhile, sources said the second lot of children are all set to arrive here after Rakshabandhan.