The estimates of total number child labourers and their working conditions in cottonseed production in the state presented in the previous section are related to the 2003-04 crop season. Various developments have taken place since January 2004, which have a bearing on the child labour situation in cottonseed production in the current crop season, 2004-05, which has just begun. Cross-pollination activity where children are employed on large-scale began in the month of June in a few areas and in August in other areas. A brief field visit was undertaken in the month of August 2004 to some of the villages surveyed during 2003 to assess the current situation of child labour in cottonseed farms in the state.
It is too early to make any estimates about the number of children involved in cottonseed production for the current 2004-2005 season because in some areas the cross pollination work just started and in the initial period the requirement of labour is less. The situation in the areas where cross pollination work has begun in the month of June itself and the initial trends in other areas, however, indicates that the situation is not going to be significantly different compared to the last crop season unless serious efforts are made to stop the employment of children at the field level. In most of the areas where resurvey was conducted in August 2004, the situation has not improved much. The area under cottonseed production slightly increased this year (about 2,000 acres in the entire state). Several MNCs have also increased their production area this year31.
The situation is slightly better in some parts of Kurnool district (mainly in Nandhyala division) and Mahaboobnagar district (Gadwal division) where an active campaign by the MV Foundation and other NGOs, as well as the Association Seed Industry in some pockets, is going on. Since January 2004, MV Foundation has taken up a district-wide campaign against child labour. The issue of child labour in cottonseed production has received special attention in this campaign because there is a high concentration of cottonseed production in this district. Since January 2004, ASI has also taken up a number of initiatives to motivate the seed organisers and farmers against the practices of employing children through meetings, appealing through posters, pamphlets, print and electronic media, offering incentives to the villages which do not employ children in seed production activities, taking oral and written commitments from farmers at the time of making contracts with them.
The current crop season began with a death of a 13 years old boy, Mallesh, on June 29, 2004, due to pesticide exposure in a Dudekonda village in Kurnool district. Mallesh was employed as a bonded labourer and apart from doing other operations on the cottonseed farm of his employer, he was also entrusted with the task of spraying pesticides on the field32. Indiscriminate use of chemical pesticides in cottonseed cultivation is going on unabated and it is causing a lot of health problems to the children working in the fields, who are directly exposed to pesticides, such as during the cross-pollination work. Children stand in the fields of cotton plants, which reach up to their shoulders, and they bend over them as they identify flowers ready for pollination. The elder boys are also occasionally entrusted the task of actual pesticide spraying work. In the course of doing these works, the children are exposed to pesticides for prolonged hours in a day.
Mallesh's death resulting from exposure to pesticides is not the first of its kind; several children have fallen victim in the first few years. Unfortunately, these kinds of incidents generally go unreported. The MV Foundation is currently gathering information about the number of children who have died due to pesticide exposures in Kurnool district during last few years.
The recent elections and change of government in the state had some negative impact and has slowed down the ongoing efforts of the government to eliminate the child labour in the state. The new Congress government which came to power in May 2004, defeating the Telugu Desam Party which ruled the state since 1994, has not yet made its stand clear on various initiatives undertaken by the earlier government on the child labour issue. Child labour is not on the priority list of the government.
The issue of farmers' suicides in the state recently got wide-spread attention. Since 1997 a large number of farmers, mostly cotton farmers, have committed suicides due to financial distress caused by consecutive failure of crops. Around 300 farmers have committed suicides since the new government came into power in May 200433. The cotton farmers who have committed suicide are poor farmers who grow commercial cotton and not the farmers who grow cottonseed. The problems of commercial cotton growers are structurally different from cottonseed growers. The new government has initiated series of measures to help the farmers in the state. A six months moratorium on repayment of private loans taken by farmers, free power supply to the agricultural pump sets, compensation to the families where persons committed suicide, rescheduling of bank loans were announced. Cottonseed farmers in some places are taking advantage of the issue of farmers suicides and new government's farmer friendly attitude to hide their irregularities. They are even going to the extent of threatening the local authorities who came to inspect their fields stating that they are in deep financial trouble and if they book cases against them for violating child labour norm they will not have any alternative than committing suicide. Local politicians are also putting pressure on authorities not to book any cases against farmers on child labour issue.