& Rao Jaswant Singh
Life's cheap in the Bt cotton fields of Gujarat
That was the first time Punjilal got to know where his missing daughter had been. She had gone shopping one day to Wardha market in Dungarpur, and never returned. Apparently, there she had met a middleman, Amramam, who took her ”along with others” to work in Gujarat's Bt cotton fields.
"Wardha police station received the body and they handed it over to us saying Haju had died of snake bite while working in the cotton fields," says Punjilal. But he is still not convinced that it was snake bite.
He has his reasons. Punjilal has heard horror stories of rape and sexual abuse of minors. Besides, there have been far too many deaths. Last year, 12 children died, and this year, in less than one month, five have died.
There are large Bt cotton farms in Banaskantha district of Gujarat. And when cross-pollination work begins in the end of July, a large number of children from Rajasthan's Udaipur and Dungarpur are taken there, often by coercion or deception, as the local people allege. Almost 90% of those working there are from Rajasthan.
Ironically, Gujarat police have registered cases in Sihori and Deodhar police stations but the report did not mention that the deceased were working in the Bt cotton fields at the time of their death. Apart from Haju, Bhuri Ben (14), Madi Ben (16), Pyari (15) and Ramesh (14) have died in the past one month. The cause of death in case of Haju Ben and Ramesh was cited as snake bite, Bhuri and Pyari fell ill and died due to lack of medical assistance while parents of Mani Ben allege rape-and-murder. During the cotton cultivation season last year, 12 child labourers, including eight girls, had died. Two incidents of rape were reported last year.
Investigating officer Sulaiman Ramji of Sihori Police Station in Banaskantha district of Gujarat confirmed that those who died were minors and had come from Rajasthan to work in the Bt cotton fields. He also said that police have registered an FIR. Dakshini Rajasthan Mazdoor Union (DRMU), a social group working for the welfare of migrant workers, especially tribal children working in cotton fields of Gujarat, is demanding an inquiry to ascertain the cause of deaths and compensation to the families.
Executive member of DRMU, Sudhir Katiyar, told TOI that around 1.5 lakh such tribal children had been trafficked from bordering districts of Dungarpur, Udaipur and Banswara to the BT cotton fields in Gujarat in just one month. "Around a third of the workforce are below 14 years of age and the remaining are below 18 years. And almost 40% of them are girls," he added. He claimed they were paid not more than Rs 50 a day.