This article is published by Financial Express, 13-6-2010

BV Mahalakshmi

New study points to child labour at seed farms, MNCs under cloud

Hyderabad: More than half a million children in India below 18 years are growing cotton seeds and vegetable seeds under hazardous conditions, says a joint study by the India Committee of the Netherlands, the International Labour Rights Forum and Stop Child Labour — School is the best place to work. According to the study, around 2.30 lakh among these children are below 14 years and are putting in long working hours and are exposed to pesticides in these farms.

The seeds are produced on the lands of small and marginal farmers, which multinational and Indian seed companies use to outsource their hybrid seed production. The joint study points out that multinational seed majors like Dupont, BayerCropScience, Monsanto and a few Indian companies are relocating and expanding their cotton seed and vegetable seed production to remote areas and small family-based farms where cheap labour is more easily available.

However, the proportion of child labour to the total work force on farms producing cotton seed in case of companies like Bayer and Monsanto has dropped from nearly 53% in 2003-04 to less than 3% in 2009-10, the study clarified. Though agricultural wages have gone up, minimum wages are not paid, women generally earn 50-60% less than men, and children earn even less, it added.

Children are employed on a long-term contract basis through advances and loans extended to their parents by local seed producers. These producers, in turn, have agreements with the seed companies (local, national and multinational) who produce and market hybrid vegetable seeds, the study says.

However, National Seeds Association of India (NSAI) president Uday Singh maintained that the problem of child labour has considerably come down in the last five years due to initiatives taken by seed companies. He also attributed the overall economic growth in the country to this declining trend. “There is still some small problems in remote areas but this will also be eliminated in the next couple of years. I would like to clarify that no seed company allows or directly hires any child labour,’’ he clarified, while maintaining that daily wages have considerably gone up in rural India and remain above the minimum wages due to various opportunities as well as the NREGA initiative of the government.

YR Mohana Rao, director (human rights), Monsanto India, also denied the report while pointing out that the company had focused on eradicating child labour in seed production.

“Monsanto entered hybrid cotton seed production and marketing in 2004 and has about 5-6% share in total cotton seed produced in the country. Since then, we have invested over Rs 14 crore into our human rights and anti-child labour programme called the ‘Child-Care Program (CCP).”

The programme, implemented under the industry’s guidance and several NGOs and farmers, has reduced child labour on the company’s hybrid cotton seed production fields from 20% in 2004 to less than 1% in 2009, he claimed.

“Our multi-pronged farmer-focused strategy involves awareness and education campaigns, external third-party audits, and an incentive/disincentive programme to encourage farmers to employ only adult labour,'' he explained.

BayerCropScience also maintained that in order to ensure “zero child labor” production farms, professional monitoring teams check the entire production area without prior warning several times per season. Compared to figures of about 50% in cotton seed fields, quoted by earlier NGO studies, BayerCropScience has managed to reduce this number in its production area to the practical level of zero. These numbers are verified externally, emphasised a BayerCropScience note.

A DuPont spokesperson also said, “We actively and strongly advocate 'no child labour' in all our business practices and outreach to farmers, and actively provide support to achieve it.”

“DuPont has a zero-tolerance policy towards child labor and we adhere to this policy across all businesses and geographies. In India, our seeds business, Pioneer Seeds, has had a successful presence for more than 30 years, though our cotton seed business is less than a year old. Pioneer has several farmer outreach and training programmes, where farmers are also engaged in several community programmes supporting improved livelihoods,” the spokesperson added.

Indian seed companies have also denied engaging in child labour. According to VR Kaundinya, MD & CEO of Advanta Seeds, the company does not accept child labour in any of its establishments, including field production of seeds. “We are an extremely small player in the cotton seed market. Most of our seed production is done through contractors, and we are continuously working with them to see that no child labour is used in our production fields of cotton seed,'' he said. “We also believe that eliminating child labour from seed production fields will not eliminate then problem completely unless developmental efforts are made by all concerned to improve their livelihoods,'' he added.

The present study is mainly based on the analysis of primary data collected through field visits to 490 sample farms in 45 villages in six districts in three states: Karnataka, Maharashtra and Gujarat. Of the total 490 sample farms, nearly 50% (250 farms) are located in Karnataka, 160 farms in Maharashtra and 80 farms in Gujarat.

Karnataka has the largest vegetable seed production area in the country and accounts for nearly 89,920 (58%) of the total children employed in this sector, of which 35,458 children are below 14 years, and the remaining 54,462 are in the 15-18 year age group, it said. Maharashtra ranks second employing 44,048 children (28.9%), out of which 38.9% (17,151) are below 14 years. The greatest number of child labourers were found in pepper farms (sweet and hot pepper). They accounted for nearly 40% (61,607) of the total of children employed in all the five crops studied.

The study was done by Davuluri Venkateswarlu, who covered more than 90% of total Indian cotton and vegetable production in the states of Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu for cotton seed, and Gujarat, Karnataka and Maharashtra for tomato, pepper, okra and brinjal seeds. India currently produces vegetables on nearly 8 million hectares and about 30% of this area is covered with hybrid varieties. The market for hybrid vegetable seeds is high and land for seed production is rapidly growing in the country. A number of seed companies, both Indian and MNCs, are involved in the production and marketing of hybrid vegetable seeds. Hybrid seed production in crops like tomato, hot pepper, sweet pepper, brinjal and okra is a highly labour- and capital-intensive activity.

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Landelijke India Werkgroep - June 14, 2010