The introduction of hybrid cottonseeds in the early seventies brought significant changes in the quantity and quality of cotton production in India. It has not only contributed to the rise in productivity and quality of cotton, but also helped to generate substantial amount of additional employment in the agricultural sector.
Despite its positive contribution, hybrid cottonseed production has given rise to new system of employing female children as 'bonded labourers' and their large-scale exploitation. An important feature of hybrid cottonseed production is that it is highly labour intensive, and female children are engaged in most its operations. Female children are employed on a long-term contract basis through advances and loans to their parents by local seed producers, who have agreements with the large national and multinational seed companies.
The present report is based on the detailed study carried out by the author on the working conditions of these children in seven mandals of Telangana and Rayalaseema regions of Andhra Pradesh, which was supponed by Business and Community Foundation as part of its fellowship programme for Corporate Partnerships.
The study estimated that in India nearly 4 lakh female children, in the age group of 7-14 years, are employed in cottonseed fields, in which AP alone accounted for nearly 2.5 lakhs. This number is far greater than the total number of children employed in carpet, glass bangles, gem polishing and limestone industries put together in India. Child labour in these industries does not exceed 25%, with a majority of them beings boys, where as in cottonseed female child labour constitutes about 90% of the labour force.
Cottonseed production is highly concentrated in the backward districts of Mahaboobnagar, Rangareddy and Kurnool which account for 96% production in the State and 62% in India.
Hybrid cottonseed production is labour and capital intensive, which requires about 10 times more labour and four and a half times more capital, compared to the production of commercial cotton crop. It is also noted that the commercial cotton crop requires an investment of Rs. 12,000 to 15,000 per acre, while hybrid cottonseed requires about Rs. 50,000 to 60,000. The net profit margin in hybrid cottonseed is about Rs. 40,000-50,000 an acre.
In hybrid cottonseed production emasculation and pollination work is very vital and has to be done manually with extreme care. In the entire process of seed production, this activity alone requires about 90% of the total labour days (2000 out of 2200 days) and also 45% of investment. This activity is mainly carried out by girls.
It is important to note that there is established linkage between the local seed farmers and large-scale seed companies, both national and multi-national. These companies operate through local middlemen, known as 'seed organisers', who in turn arrange some money as advance for the farmers. As agreed upon, the seed organisers supply the foundation seeds to the farmer, determine the method of cultivation and set the price of seed before the commencement of cultivation. About 60% of seed produced in AP are exported to other States and countries.
The study also showed that the children work on long-term contract basis, with low wages and long working hours because their parents had either taken loans or advances from the seed producers (more often it is thrust upon them) and thus are forced to live in a debt trap for years. About 95% of the children employed in the study area come under this category of debt bondage.
On average children are paid about 70% of the adult female or 45% of the adult male wage rates. When it is realised that the local child labour is insufficient, the seed producers bring children from neighbouring areas. These children are put in camps and given food.
In order to extract more work from children, the employers are resorting to new methods of exploitation by offering several incentives such as chocolates, biscuits, tiffin-boxes, bangles, ribbons, and occasional film shows. There are certain wrong notions being intentionally spread by the employers to avoid adult labour, like citing the age-old superstition that it is inauspicious for women to work during menstruation. The female children are pliable and also endure long working hours.
Study found that the work in cottonseed fields seem to pose long-term health problems for girls because of their constant exposure to poisonous pesticides used to control pests. Another dimension, which affects the female children, is literacy. About 60% of the children working in cottonseed fields in the study area are school dropouts.
The institutional response to this problem in this context has remained minimal. Seed industries and financial institutions are trying to justify the use of child labour on one pretext or the other. The problem of child labour is viewed by them as a 'harsh reality' which is linked to poverty and can not be simply wished away as long as poverty persists. However, the efforts of an NGO, Mamidipudi Venkatarangaiah Foundation, which is involved in mobilising public opinion against child labour in some pockets of Rangareddy district, produced a positive impact. In recent times, the campaign against child labour launched by the State Government has shown some results, but was not effective in addressing the problem.
Contrary to popular belief, the study showed that poverty is not the reason for child labour, but the absence of a strong social norm against employing children and governmental response in providing facilities are.