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Pentlavally (AP): Over a dozen small-sized slippers lay neatly lined near a fence and close by, a bunch of steel lunch boxes are tucked under wild shrubs.
This could well be the entrance to a school’s classroom, but the children who wear these slippers on their way home with their empty lunch boxes come here to work not study.
An estimated 82,875 children - aged 6 to 14 - are employed in the cottonseed farms of Mahbubnagar and Kurnool districts of Andhra Pradesh.
These farms have acquired the dubious distinction of being the only industry in the world to employ the largest workforce of children, estimated at around 60 per cent. Worse, the girl child constitutes majority of the work force and are grappling with health problems ranging from breathlessness to nervous disorders. Pentavally village in Kollapur taluka of Mahbubnagar district is among the many villages that employ children for cross-pollination work in cottonseed farms, a labour-intensive job wherein the child has to identify flowers ready for pollination and manually peal off their petals to ‘cross’ them with the pollen in male flowers.
It is pollination season and there is hectic activity at the cottonseed farms here. At one farm about 16 young girls toil in the hot sun, cotton towels wrapped around their heads and a basket of cotton flowers (male) tucked to their waists. Renuka, 12, wipes the beads of sweat on her forehead while explaining the work she is doing. She says she does not have much time, pointing at the hundreds of flowers that are marked for crossing. ``If they are not pollinated by this evening, they will go waste,’’ she explains with the sincerity of an adult.
Renuka’s friends on the farm take a hasty break to pose for pictures whispering that the farm owner would be upset if they take long. ``We get tired after working for so long every day so we squat under the bushes. Our friends alert us when the farm owner comes for the rounds,’’ says 11-year-old Devamma.
Fatigue after 12 to 16 hours of manually pollinating each flower on every plant in three to five acre plots every day is indeed predictable, but, these children here are also grappling with far more serious health problems. On June 29, 2004, a 13-year-old boy Mallesh died due to “pesticide exposure in Dudekonda village in Kurnool district’’, notes a study on child labour in cottonseed farms conducted by Davuluri Venkateswarlu for India Committee of the Netherlands.
Not too long ago, a 16-year-old girl had died of a heart attack on the cotton farm in Pentlavally village, says Y Laxman Rao, secretary of Shramika Vikas Kendram, a social organization working for child rights here. For all the hard work, these young workers are paid around Rs 15 to Rs 20 a day, which is paid at the end of the month. They have to work even when they are unwell, as farm owners pay a month’s salary in advance to the parents before their child starts work.
However, most cases of death or disease go unreported, say activists. There is a steady stream of children visiting the Primary Healthcare Centre (PHC) at Pentlavally with complaints of headaches, diarrhoea and gastroenteritis, says Dr P Sai Reddy, the PHC’s health supervisor. But, what goes largely unreported at the PHC are the mood swings and the nervous disorders due to exposure to pesticides. “Children working in cottonseed fields complain of: headaches, weakness, disorientation, convulsions and respiratory problems,’’ says Venkateswarlu.
Rama Devi, 15, who stopped working the cottonseed farms last year, still complains of giddiness and nausea. “I used to faint in the heat while working on the farms. It used to be worse after pesticides were sprayed on the fields,’’ says Rama, who is now a poster girl for many children working in these farms. She has attended a school and now goes to junior college. The only reminder of those long days of endless plucking and pollination is the throbbing pain in her thumb.
* These farms have acquired the dubious distinction of being the only industry in the world to employ the largest workforce of children, estimated at around 60 per cent
* For all the hard work, these young workers are paid around Rs 15 to Rs 20 a day, which is paid at the end of the month
* They have to work even when they are unwell, as farm owners pay a month’s salary in advance to the parents before their child starts work
HOW IT STARTED?
Davuluri Venkateswarlu, who has studied the subject extensively, says:
* The practice of recruiting children started in the 1970s when the first hybrid cotton was released in India.
* India was the first country to release hybrid cotton commercially, which was not successful in any other country because it was a labour intensive activity.
* Initially, more adults were employed but farm owners soon realised they were spending 55 per cent of the total cost of cultivation on labour and decided to recruit cheaper labour - children (a child’s wage is Rs 20 a day while an adult charges Rs 60).
* The numbers of children on the fields only increased with time as they turned out to be more productive and easier to control.