In Kanba village in Rajasthan’s Dungarpur district, 13-year-old Sejal Kharadi is cheerless about packing away her textbooks. It’s the last day of classes before school shuts for the Diwali break. This time last year, she was huddled with 11 other children in the back of a Maruti Gypsy making its way back from Gujarat. After months of work in cotton fields, they were being delivered back home for the festive season.
Kharadi is one of the many Bhil tribal children who constitute the migrant workforce of Gujarat’s cotton fields. According to the third National Family Health Survey (2005-06), about three million children in the age group of 5-14 are involved in child labour in Rajasthan—and a majority of them are in the agriculture sector. The use of children has increased along with the growing demand for Bt, or genetically modified cotton, which requires manual cross-pollination between June and September. Children are preferred because they have nimble fingers and can pick from the low cotton plants faster than adults.
Spinning dreams: ‘Rescued’ children—Sailesh Damor (12) and Kokila Damor (13) at Kanba village. Priyanka Parashar/Mint
Kharadi’s work days stretched from 5am-6pm with an hour’s break for lunch. She and the other children—who slept in tin shelters in the fields—took turns to prepare their meals.
This year, no one from Kanba has gone to Gujarat’s cotton fields. While many children returned with severe stomach aches or fever over the last few years, a boy called Jignesh died last year: He’d inhaled too much pesticide.
Sindhu Binujeeth, a Dungarpur-based consultant for Unicef, which works in the area of child protection, explains that the children face significant health risks from exposure to pesticides, long hours and lack of rest while working in the cotton fields. Sexual abuse is rampant. The price they’re paid for their loss of childhood: Rs 60 a day. Parents, generally unaware of the appalling conditions their children face, often negotiate advances with the “mete”, or middleman, in an attempt to fight their desperate poverty. Unicef is working towards reversing this trend with the support of the Ikea Foundation, the charitable arm of Ikea, the home furnishing giant, which sources most of its cotton from India and wants to ensure that it involves no child labour.
“No father wants to make his child work. But I needed another earning member,” says Ramesh Kharadi, Sejal’s father, a labourer.
Kanba’s sarpanch, a headstrong woman called Mani Roat, penalized families by cutting down on their government rations. “Over the last year, we’ve stopped at least 70 children from Kanba from working and enrolled them in school,” says Roat, who has a chant: “Kalam sena zindabad, safed mout murdabad” (Long live the pen army, condemn death in cotton fields).
The Unicef-Ikea project is working closely with government systems. This year, they’ve funded the operations of 10 checkposts—each of which has four-six Home Guards manning it—at critical border points to check migration. The state government is also expanding its efforts to prevent children from working by surveying households. With their combined efforts, over the last few years, child migration to cotton farms has come down from 30,000 to 1,500, according to P.C. Kishan, Dungarpur’s former district collector.
Part of Unicef’s efforts are in linking vulnerable families to social protection schemes such as the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act and self-help groups such as the People’s Education and Development Organization (Pedo), a local non-governmental organization (NGO), which helps women band together to buy seeds, fertilizers and cattle. “We need to straighten out the problems that underwrite child labour. It’s a twisted chain,” says Ramila Vyas, Pedo’s founder.
While villagers are gradually realizing the benefits of sending—and keeping—their children in school, and looking at means other than child labour to supplement their income, middlemen still do the rounds looking for potential labour. In Amarpura village, only 37km from the scenic city of Udaipur, we meet Savitabai whose 10-year-old son Dinesh had almost been lured away. “The children who’ve worked for many seasons manage to save some money. The younger ones see them returning with new clothes and mobile phones, and they think going to a cotton farm is the only way to get one,” says Savitabai.
Dinesh’s plans were intercepted by a Village Child Protection Committee of 15 women set up by an Udaipur-based NGO called Unnati Sansthan, which has recently got Unicef’s support. “We found out through other children where the mete had asked Dinesh to come that evening,” says Kalibai, the committee’s president. “We sat him down to explain what happens to boys and girls when they go far away to work.”
To keep children like Dinesh in school, the committee members have also designated volunteers as escorts. Children as young as 6 have to walk 8km, sometimes 9km to the nearest school. Volunteers such as Rooplibai, a 50-year-old woman with a bright blue sari draped around her hair, have taken on the responsibility of escorting the children to school. She sets out at 6am everyday, picking up around 60 children along the way, helping them make their way through steep jungle paths to school. She waits in school to take them back, and has been sitting in on classes herself. “I’m in class VII now,” she says with a broad smile.
If Kanba and Amarpura are to be taken as examples, school enrolment across villages in Dungarpur has increased exponentially. “Rescued” children across the district are regularly attending school.
The Unicef-Ikea project is attempting to consolidate the efforts of different NGOs with a centralized District Child Protection Committee (DCPC) office which they set up in January. At its head is Kantilal Chobisa, a retired deputy superintendent of police. When vehicles are stopped at the checkposts, Chobisa sends a team of aid workers and policemen. The mete and driver are slapped on with charges under the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act.
Twenty-eight of the children rescued this year by DCPC were put in a Unicef rehabilitation centre in Surpur village for a few months, after which they were either sent back home or enrolled in special hostels run by the government. “We maintain progress reports of the children,” says Chobisa. “If a child misses school for more than five days, school administrations have orders to call the DCPC office.”
We visited one of the checkposts at Malmata, not too far from the Gujarat border, where the guards have been on a day and night vigilance. There had been no incidents of child trafficking so far, and the “season” was about to end. But while things are looking up, it is evident that the malpractice is a deep rooted one. Two hours after we left, we learnt that a jeep with six children was stopped.
They were going to Gujarat.