Children fuel Bt cotton boom

Children fuel Bt cotton boom

Udaipur/Dungarpur, Rajasthan: 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 non-governmental organizations (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, 8-20km 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 disclose, the children are packed into sheds, where they sleep on a mat, must rise at 4am,endure 12-14-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 “40-50 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 and reduces insecticide use—and so transforms the cotton economy.

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

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

Gujarat produces around 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.

The irony

Since agricultural labour is not a hazardous occupation, the labour laws say children under 14 can work—for no more than three hours, preceded by an hour’s rest, 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 showed.

A quiet, unsmiling pre-teen who had 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 Rs5,000 as compensation.

On the last day of their three-month labour, said Popat, children are given sweets and a tilak (vermillion) is applied 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 Rs1,000 and Rs1,200 for their three-month stay—at best, Rs13 a day, which is around Re1 per hour. The official minimum wage: Rs50 per day.

The mates get 40 times as much, earning commissions of Rs40 for every day a child works. They can earn anywhere between Rs30,000 and a few lakhs for a season.

Khemraj Barenda, a former mate who trafficked children until two years ago, said parents are only paid an advance —Rs300-500 for the season.

No choice

It’s not like there’s no government will to stop the trafficking. Suggestions made in 2009 by a National Commission for 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 checkposts along the border. There is a control room, task forces, night patrolling, joint inspections 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, 8km 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 only grow enough for their consumption.

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

In Udaipur, the rural literacy rate hovers around 43%, per capita income is less than Rs18,000 and the average landholding is 1.57ha. 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 Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) to the Integrated Child Development Services to the National Social Assistance Programme for those in distress.

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

Dungarpur is even poorer, with a per capita income of around Rs12,000 and average landholdings of 1.3ha.

Landholdings in Gujarat’s Banaskantha district are between 10 and 15 times as large, so the call of the cotton fields will always be hard to resist for Rajasthan’s tribal children.

“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."

Tracking Hunger is a joint effort of the Hindustan Times and Mint to track, investigate and report every aspect of the struggle to rid India of hunger.

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