This article was published by, 15-8-2011

by: Yoginder Sikand

Seeds of despair

The escalating corporatization of the agricultural sector, where the bulk of the Indian workforce continues to be concentrated, has had critical consequences for struggles for the rights of landless labourers and small farmers. Land reforms, critical to the empowerment of these two sections of rural society, seem now to be definitely off the government’s agenda. The growing control of massive corporate houses, including multinational corporations (MNCs), over the agricultural sector has left agricultural labourers and small farmers increasingly at the mercy of market forces, leading, as numerous reports have highlighted, to their increasing pauperization.

While child labour is banned by law, one major consequence of the invasion of the agricultural sector by corporate houses, driven by relentless search for profits based on cheap labour, is the widespread use of children in agricultural operations in sectors controlled by such companies. Two detailed reports, recently published by the International Labour Rights Forum (ILRF) and the India Committee of the Netherlands (ICN), highlight the prevalence of high rates of child labour in farms linked to the burgeoning hybrid seed production industry across the country. These farms grow hybrid seeds for both Indian and multinational, mainly European and American, seed companies.

The first report, ominously titled ‘Growing Up in the Danger Fields’, is based on an intensive survey of child labourers employed in seed farms in Karnataka, Maharashtra and Gujarat that specialize in producing hybrid tomato, hot pepper, sweet pepper, brinjal and okra seeds for corporate houses. The report notes that such farms prefer to employ children, especially girls, for the labour-intensive cross-pollination and hybridization activity which is engineered in such a way that the hybrid seeds can be used only for one crop. These children are hired on a long-term contract basis through advances and loans extended to their parents by local seed producers. The latter, in turn, have tie-ups with seed companies who market the seeds. In many of the farms surveyed for the report, children under the age of 14, the statutory minimum age for employment, accounted for more than a third of the workforce. A much greater proportion of the workers were adolescents of school-going age, between the age of 15 to 18.

Typically, children on such farms are compelled to work between 9 to 12 hours a day, and are paid less than the official minimum wage, which is why they are preferred as workers. Besides, they are easier to control than adult workers. They are also regularly exposed to poisonous pesticides. Poverty and indebtedness, the report found, are the major factors that compel families to send their children to work on the seed farms. As a result, many children simply dropped out of school in the hope of being able to help their families. Not surprisingly, the report found that the vast majority—more than 90%—of the labourers on such farms, including child labourers, were from the Dalit, Adivasi, Backward Caste and Muslim communities, and were mainly landless labourers or owned plots that were too small to make their ends meet. The bulk of the owners of the farms were ‘upper’ caste Hindus.

The report found ample evidence of gross exploitation of the workforce in the hybrid vegetable seed industry. In Gujarat, for instance, the daily wage for children in the seed fields ranged between Rs. 60 and Rs. 80, and that of female workers Rs. 64.5, much below the daily wage for an unskilled worker, which was set at Rs. 100. In Maharashtra, female workers were paid a pittance of Rs. 67 per day on an average, although the minimum statutory wage was much higher.

Child labour, again mainly from the ‘lower’ castes, is also rampant in the lucrative and rapidly growing hybrid cottonseed production industry in India, according to a second report, titled ‘Seeds of Child Labour: Signs of Hope’, also produced by the ILRF and ICN. ‘No other industry in India has such a high proportion of child labour in its work force’, the report notes. The industry, concentrated in Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, is highly labour-intensive. To minimize labour costs, hybrid cottonseed farmers, who take sub-contracts from huge Indian and multinational hybrid cottonseed corporations, prefer to employ the cheapest form of labour—that of children, especially girls. Almost a third of the workforce consists of children below the age of 14, while children between 15 and 18 account for around 40% of the workers. The working conditions in the industry are harsh, and working hours long. In some parts of Andhra Pradesh, for instance, a child working on a hybrid cottonseed farm, putting in almost 13 hours a day, is paid a measly Rs. 2500 a month. In parts of Tamil Nadu, children in the industry put in seven hours a day, for which they are paid a paltry Rs. 20. As in the case of the hybrid vegetable industry, the majority of the workers in the hybrid cottonseed industry are Dalits, Backward Castes, Adivasis and Muslims. ‘Upper’ caste Hindus form only a tiny proportion of the workforce.

The report indicates that the total area under hybrid cottonseed production has gone up appreciably in recent years. Gujarat, for instance, witnessed a rise of 58% in the area under cottonseed production between 2006 and 2010. At the same time, the area controlled directly by multinational corporations has also rapidly increased. This is part of a general trend, whereby larger companies are increasing their control over the hybrid seed industry and shunting their smaller competitors. Along with this, the report reveals, seed companies are also relocating and expanding their production to new areas—pockets where cheap labour is readily available and where there is less public concern about child labour. Thus, the report found that in Gujarat and Tamil Nadu, all the new production locations are located in remote Adivasi pockets. Faced with demands for higher procurement prices from large seed farmers, companies now prefer to contract with small farmers because, being less organized, they cannot bargain effectively for higher prices for the seeds they supply them with. And as the land devoted to hybrid cottonseed production increases the report notes a rise in the numbers of children, mainly from ‘low’ caste families who are landless or own small plots, employed in the industry. Such children often choose or are compelled to drop out of school in order to supplement their families’ incomes.

Both the reports note that despite the presence of legal mechanisms against child labour, vast numbers of children continue to be employed, and that too on extremely exploitative terms, in farms catering to the corporate-controlled hybrid seed industry across India. They also observe that despite hectic lobbying by activist groups, the corporate houses that exercise a virtual monopoly over the hybrid seed industry in the country have done little, if at all, to tackle the problem. But if unbridled corporate greed, the neo-liberal mantra, simply cannot be challenged for fear of being branded as ‘seditious’, as the managers of our state appear to insist, it seems futile to expect the industry to act otherwise.

Yoginder Sikand is Indian writer-academic and the author of several books on Islam-related issues in India.

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