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Re 1 per hour: Children fuel Bt cotton boom

Sought for their nimble hands and low height, Rajasthani children help pollinate fields of genetically modified cotton in Gujarat. With social-security schemes faltering, even a state vigil can’t stop the night runs of traffickers, reports Urvashi Dev Rawal.

india Updated: Jul 19, 2010 23:11 IST
Urvashi Dev Rawal

In this land of rolling hills, made lush by the monsoon, traffic ceases after dusk. So, it is unusual to hear jeeps running through the night on the winding roads of tribal south Rajasthan.

Through the day, the local police, villagers and NGOs are out in force, trying to stop what they can only slow — the mass trafficking of children across the border into Gujarat from the Rajasthan districts that border it: Udaipur, Dungarpur, Banswara and Sirohi.

Dungarpur Collector Purna Chandra Kishan acknowledged that some 30,000 children, some as young as seven, were sent across the border last year. Udaipur Collector Anand Kumar said the count for his district was 25,000.

So, the jeeps continue their short runs at night, 8 to 20 km, into Gujarat. If the pressure is too intense, the contractors, called “mates” locally, walk the children across the border, where more jeeps wait.

Once in the cotton fields of Gujarat’s prosperous Sabarkantha or Banaskantha districts, interviews with child workers reveal, the children are packed into sheds, where they sleep on a mat, must rise at 4 am, endure 12- to 14-hour days and little relief from illness.

Last year, according to official figures, five children died. The unofficial toll is in the tens.

Laloo Ramji, who “guesses” he is 13 or 14, is a child worker who will not be going back this year. Perhaps, he never will. His hands are getting too big.

A wiry boy with an ear-stud and willing smile, Ramji recalled staying with “40 to 50 other children in a small, cramped room”.

Their work was in the sprawling fields planted with Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) cotton, named after a soil bacterium whose gene has been inserted into the cotton plant to produce a toxin that resists the bollworm, reduces insecticide use — and so transforms the cotton economy.

Ramji explained how he plucked the stamen, or the male part of the cotton flower. “We placed it in the sunlight, so it opened,” said Ramji. “After it (the flower) opened, we took the pollen and rubbed it on the female part (pistil) of the flower. We worked till about 1 pm when we were given a two-hour break for lunch. Then we worked till 7 pm.”

THE GREAT IRONY

The needs of modern biotechnology, the economics to Gujarat’s ascendancy as India’s cotton-bowl and multiple failures of national social security schemes in Rajasthan’s four southern districts drive the medieval exploitation of children.

Gujarat produces about half of India’s cotton, adroitly using its Bt version this decade to boost yields and lower costs. The state’s fields had a record harvest in 2009, and the anticipation of another boom fuels the trafficking of children.

The Bt cotton plant is smaller than normal cotton, and that drives the demand for child workers. It helps that they have small, nimble fingers for the delicate work of pollination.

Since agricultural labour is not a hazardous occupation, the labour laws say children under 14 can work, but only for six hours a day with an hour’s rest in between. In addition, there must be weekly holidays and medical benefits.

Work hours in the cotton fields stretch up to 14 hours, and children exposed to insecticides report a variety of health hazards. These include dizziness, headaches, nausea, weakness, skin infections and respiratory problems, as a 2000 study by the Gujarat Agricultural Labour Union revealed.

A quiet, unsmiling preteen who worked two years in Gujarat’s cotton fields, Popat Parghi from Udaipur’s Dehri village described what happened when a girl working on a neighbouring farm fell ill.

“We asked the Patel (employer) to get her treated, but he refused and said the mate would do that,” said Parghi. “The mate came the next day and arranged for the girl to be taken home, but she died en route.”

Of the five officially reported deaths in 2009, the government paid each family Rs 5,000 as compensation.

On the last day of their three-month labour, said Popat, children are given sweets and tilak (vermillion) is put on their forehead. “The Patels give small gifts like a glass or bowl and ask the children to return the next year.”

The children earn between Rs 1,000 and 1,200 for their three-month stay — at best, Rs 13 a day, which is Re 1 per hour. The official minimum wage: Rs 50 per day.

The “mates” earn 40 times as much, earning commissions of Rs 40 for every day a child works. They can earn anywhere between Rs 30,000 and a few lakhs for the season.

Khemraj Barenda, a former “mate” who trafficked children until two years ago, said parents are only paid an “advance”, Rs 300 to Rs 500, for the season.

NO OTHER CHOICE

It’s not like there’s no government will to stop the trafficking.

Suggestions made in 2009 by a National Commission on Protection of Child Rights team, which visited Udaipur and Dungarpur districts, are now rolling out.

At a recent meeting, the governments of Rajasthan and Gujarat agreed to set up check-posts along the border. There are task forces, night patrolling, joint inspections, a control room, and raids on the Bt cotton farms. Officials have been asked to report any child absent from school for more than five days.

Yet, the jeeps roll on in the night, and in the village of Mata Ghati, 8 km north of the Gujarat border, primary school teacher Kewal Singh has seen “mates” scouting for children.

Why do Rajasthan’s tribal parents agree to send their children to Gujarat’s cotton fields for the pittance that they get?

The short answer is every rupee counts in a region where the Congress government’s cradle-to-grave social-security schemes are failing.

The only occupation is farming corn and tuvar dal, but the tribes grow just for their own consumption.

Rural Rajasthan is one of India’s poorest areas, worse off than many sub-Saharan countries.

In the former kingdom of Udaipur, the rural literacy rate hovers around 43 per cent, the annual per capita income is less than Rs 18,000 and the average landholding is 1.57 hectacre.

There are no specific figures for the district’s tribal region, from where the children are trafficked, but the poverty is far deeper.

Officials and NGOs in the area point to corruption, ignorance of government schemes, and the failure of social-security services, most of which are, theoretically, available — from the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS) to the Integrated Child Development Service to the National Social Assistance Programme for those in distress.

“Parents work under NREGS but children still go to Gujarat as the extra income is welcome,” said Patanjali Bhu, divisional joint labour commissioner. “Besides, most districts stop NREGS during monsoon.”

Dungarpur is even poorer; the annual per capita income is around Rs 12,000 and the average landholding 1.3 hectares, compared to 10 to 15 hectares in Gujarat’s Banaskantha district.

“Critical to reducing child labour is effective implementation and access to the already available social protection schemes,” said Samuel Mawunganidze, chief of Unicef in Rajasthan. “This will ensure that the parents have access to income and essential services, which will reduce pressure to send children to the Bt cotton fields.”

When that will happen is uncertain.

(Tracking Hunger is an initiative of HT and Mint to investigate and report the struggle to rid India of hunger.)