Seeds of Bondage: Female Child Bonded Labour in Hybrid Cottonseed Production in Andhra Pradesh


Impact of Cottonseed Work on Girl's Literacy and Health

In the previous two sections we have examined the working conditions of female child labour and reasons for employing exclusively female children in certain operations in the cottonseed fields. In the present section we will examine the implications of employing female children in cottonseed work on their education and health. It also examines the role of female children's wage contributions to the family income.

Impact on girl's education

The girls working in the cottonseed fields fall in the age group of 7-14 years, a crucial stage in the education of children. In this age they should be studying at school and playing with the children of their age.

Of the total 380 female children working in cottonseed fields in the study area, 62% of them have discontinued their school education. They went to school for few years and discontinued to work in the cottonseed fields. 29% of them never attended school. 9% attend school two to three months in a year when there is no work in cotton fields.

In Sanjamala and Koilkuntla mandals of Kurnool district it is observed that some of the names of the children working in cottonseed fields also figured in school attendance registers. These children go to school for two to three months in a year. The rest of the time they are engaged in cottonseed work.

There are many reasons for not sending girls to school, but in the areas where cottonseed is produced, the main reason for most of the parents is the availability of work in the cottonseed fields. The data from six villages in the study area shows that of the total 360 non-school going female children, 58% of them are working in cottonseed fields.

Seed producers extend loans to parents of the children at a very crucial time of summer when work is not available in the village and when they are most likely to face financial problems. Parents feel pressurised to send their daughters for work in the cottonseed fields in order to respect the agreement settled earlier in the season. It was found that the intensity of this pressure compels parents to force their children drop out of school and join the work in the cottonseed fields.

For instance, in 1995, the government undertook a programme to admit non-school going children into schools (called the Back to School Programme). As a part of this programme, the government organised special training camps in the summer for the children and tried to join the participants in government schools. The training camps organised in Parigi Mandal initially got a good response. In the villages of Madaaram and Chityala, nearly 36 girls working in cottonseed fields participated in these camps and later joined government hostels. But 28 of them discontinued school in the first month and went back to work again in the cottonseed fields. The loan agreements settled by the seed producers with parents of the children were found to be the major reason.

Impact on girl's health

The work in cottonseed fields seems to be posing long term health problems for girls. The children are exposed to poisonous pesticides used in cottonseed fields to control pests. The general health problems reported by female children working in cottonseed fields include severe headaches, weakness, convulsions and respiratory depression. In some areas parents also reported that their female children started having trouble in their menstrual cycle after working for several years in cottonseed fields.

The use of pesticides is very high in commercial cotton crop compared to all other crops. This crop alone accounts for nearly 55% of the total pesticide consumption in India. The pesticide consumption is even higher for the hybrid cottonseed. The most poisonous pesticides are used to control various pests causing damage to the crop.

Children working in the cottonseed fields are directly exposed to pesticides. While doing the cross-pollination work they need to stand on the fields of cotton plants, which reap up to their shoulders, and bend over them as they identify flowers which are ready for pollination. In the course of doing this work, these children get exposed to pesticides like endosulfan, which is an organochlorine, for prolonged hours a day.

In case of the other crops, the day when pesticides are sprayed generally no manual work is attended in the field in order to avoid people from getting exposed to pesticides. But in cottonseed cross-pollination work has to be attended every day. While the pesticides are sprayed, the cross-pollination work is also done simultaneously. Hence the exposure to pesticides is more and direct in cottonseed fields.

The exposure to pesticides like endosulfan affects the nervous system and symptoms are precisely what female children of ten complain - headaches, weakness, disorientation, convulsions, respiratory problems (Kalpana, 2000).

Few cases of children even dying while working in cottonseed fields are also reported. For instance, a 12 year old girl in Pudur mandal in 1998 and a 13 year old girl in Maktal mandal in 1997 died while working in cottonseed fields. In both the cases it was highly suspected that the main reason for their death was due to excessive exposure to pesticides.

A detailed study of the impact of pesticide exposure on the health of female children is required. In the absence of long term monitoring of the health of female children there is no way of assessing the permanent damage such exposure can have on the health of these children.

Share of girl's wage earnings in family income

A detailed study of time allocations and income contributions of different family members whose children are working in cottonseed fields in two villages in Parigi mandal in 1998 revealed that children are working more time than the adults and contributing significantly to the family income.
Table 13: Average no. of working days and average percentage income earned by different family members in January 1998

Adult females
Adult males
Source: D. Venkateswarlu, 1998.

Table 13 presents a comparative statement of time spent and income earned by different family members. It indicates that the girls' earnings in the total family income constitute an important portion if not a crucial one. An average 28.7% of the total income in these families comes from the wages of female children working in the cottonseed fields. Women contribution to the family income is 28.3% and men contribution is 42.8%. An important aspect to be noted here is that children are working more than their elders. In a month when children are working for 29.4 days approximately, women are working for 22.2 days and men are working for only 18.6 days. When we compare each one's working time and their income, children are working for more days and earning less money, while men are working for less daus and getting more money. The reason for this is the gap between the wages paid to the children and adults.

The practice initiated by cottonseed producers to employ only girls secured via loans has brought about changes in the perceptions of parents regarding girls as workers and partners in family responsibilities. This has accompanied a rise in men's refusal of low paid agricultural wage work and an increase in their spending time outside the homes. After the girls started earning through labour, it is seen that men are gradually evading their family responsibilities. There is an increasing attitude in men that they don't have to work and contribute to the family as the women and children are working and would look after the household needs.

As an example, Lakshmi who is 13 years old and Bhagyamma who is 9 years old. They have been working for one employer in the cottonseed fields for 6 years and 2 years respectively. Their father works on their 5 acres of dry land and hires himself out for a work as a musician. His wife also does wage work and own cultivation. Prior to the girl's employment in the cottonseed fields, their father used to go for agricultural labour regularly. Since the girls started bringing money home, however, their father stopped looking for work and has developed the habit of drinking liquor. He not only brings nothing of what he earns home but also spends the money earned by the children for his needs. His two daughters earn Rs.784 in 28 days, their mother earned Rs.306 for working 18 days and their father earned Rs.480 by working for 3 days as a labourer and 6 days on his own farm. Half (49.9%) of the family income is earned by his 2 daughters, indeed his daughters and wife supplied all of family provisioning.

Another example of men's shifting some of the responsibility for provisioning onto their daughters occurred in Yadamma's family. For 5 years Yadamma, who is now 13, has been working for the same employer. She has two younger brothers and a younger sister. Her father owns 2 acres of land and he earns nearly 75 rupees per day from his work as a mason. But he does not go to work regularly. If he works for 2 days he drinks and sleeps for the next two days. His wife complains that he does not give his wage earnings to help feed the family with any regularity. Yadamma's mother, who works as a wage labourer, says that she has confronted her husband on this issue with little useful response. She said to us: "It is good if our child gets educated. We would like her to be educated. What is the need to send our child to work if he (husband) goes to work properly and gives money at home?" When the family members' income in the month of January is examined, we learn that while Yadamma earned Rs.360 in 30 days (24% of total household income), her mother earned Rs.390 working for 23 days, her father who had worked for only 15 days earned nearly Rs.750. Her father contributed only Rs.100 from his own wages to family maintenance. Again, the girls and adult women in this household carried almost the whole burden of family maintenance.

In both the cases, it is clear that adults, particularly male members, are working for lesser time than female children. The main reasons for adults working lesser time than the girls are both underemployment and their dislike for working at lesser wages. In the case of males the main reason seems to be their dislike for working at cheaper wages.

Obviously, if currently underemployed adult women or adult men are employed instead of girls at proper market (free) adult wages, their families would be much better off and would not be under pressure to send their children for work and depend upon their wage earnings. In most of the families, members, especially men, are spending major part of their income on liquor due to their addiction to it. Nearly 20% of me family income is spent on liquor in families where there is addiction. In these families if they can avoid expenditure on bad habits like liquor consumption, they don't have to depend on the earnings of their children. Meanwhile, girls could spend that time investing in their education and playing.


India Committee of the Netherlands / Landelijke India Werkgroep - June 6, 2003