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


Summary and Concluding Remarks

In the foregoing sections we have examined various aspects of hybrid cottonseed cultivation, terms and conditions of employing female children in cottonseed fields, reasons behind employing only girls in certain operations, various methods followed by the employers in order to extract more labour from the girls, the impact of cottonseed work on literacy and health of the female children, role of the female children's earnings in family income and response from government, NGOs and seed companies towards this issue. The important points that have come to light in this study are given below.

Hybrid cottonseed production in India, despite its positive contribution to the growth - in terms of quantity as weIl as quality of cotton production and employment generation - has given rise to new forms of labour exploitation. An important feature of hybrid cottonseed production is that it is highly labour intensive and female children are engaged in most of its operations. Female children are employed on long-term contract basis through advances and loans to their parents by the local seed producers who have agreements with the national and multinational seed companies.

It is estimated that in India nearly 4 lakh female children, in the age group of 7 to 14 years, are employed in cottonseed fields, in which Andhra Pradesh 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.

Cross-pollination is the most important activity in cottonseed cultivation, which alone requires 90% of the total labour days and 45.7% of the total expenditure. Except in few areas, this work is totally carried out by the female children.

Hybrid cottonseed production requires assured supply of labour for carrying out various activities, particularly the work of cross-pollination, which needs to be carried out everyday for about six months. Keeping this in view, the seed producers prefer to have advance agreements with labour before starting of the seed cultivation. The terms and conditions of employing female children indicate the emergence of a new system of bonded labour in the study area.

Giving loans on the security of labour, compelling them to work till the amount is repaid, paying lower than the market wages and making them work for longer duration etc., are important features of bonded labour system. All these features are seen in the labour agreements that are in practice in the cottonseed fields. But there is a difference between this and the bonded labour system (Jeetham system) that has been in practice since 1960s in the Telangana region. In this, there is no practice of looking down upon the workers, abusing them physically and making them do all kinds of works. In contrast, employers in cottonseed fields are resorting to new techniques of extracting more work from labourers by offering several incentives like showing movies, conducting games and distributing chocolates, biscuits, ribbons, bindis and lunch boxes which are all part of these new techniques.

There is a wrong notion that the work in cottonseed fields can be done only by children and not adults. This notion is created and propagated by the employers themselves. In reality, there are important economic and political reasons behind taking only female children into work by the employers. It is very advantageous for the employers to take girls into work. Nearly half of the capital is spent only on labour charges. Hence, lesser the expenditure on labour charges, more is the chances for profit. They can pay lesser wages to children especially girls. Not only that, they can make them work for a langer time. It is easier to control children than adults. They don't rebel against their employers. They work as what they are told to do. They don't grumble that the working conditions are not good. Having better control over labour process and keeping high profit margin are the real motives for employers preferring female children over adults and not that cottonseed work needs any special skills that only female children have and that adults and boys have not.

The employment of female children in cottonseed work has adverse impact on literacy and health of female children. About 60% of the children working in cottonseed fields in the study area school dropouts. The work in cottonseed fields seems to be posing long term health problems for girls. They are being exposed to poisonous pesticides used in cottonseed fields. The general health problems as reported by female children workings in cottonseed fields are severe headaches, weakness, convulsions and respiratory depression. 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.

The practice initiated by cottonseed producers to employ only girls has brought about changes in the perceptions of parents regarding girls as workers and partners in family responsibilities. It is found that after girls started working and earning money, the male members in the family started withdrawing from their family responsibilities.

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. Till recently, the issue of child labour in cottonseed production and the specific problems faced by the children have not received any attention either from the government, or from the NGOs and other organisations. Since 1998 this issue has received some attention and effons, though in a small way, are being made to tackle this problem. But the present efforts are confined to few pockets where local NGOs like MVF are active. In the context of growing demand for hybrid seeds and increasing area under cottonseed production, and entry of multinational seed companies the issue of female child labour needs greater attention.

Most of the families sending their children to work in cottonseed fields are economically poor. But what is important is that there is no truth in the argument that it is the poverty that drives the parents to make their children work instead of educating them. Although the children's earnings form an important portion of the family incomes, yet that is not utterly indispensible. There are many ways for these families to fill in these gaps of income. It is noted that adults, especially men, in these families are working for fewer days.

The main reason for this is not the non-availability of work. They are spending a major part of their income on the consumption of liquor. There is no need to depend on children's earnings if the adults of the families are properly employed and do not spend money on liquor. Obviously, if currently underemployed adult women or adult men were employed instead of girls at proper marker wages, their families would be much better off and will not be under pressure to send their children for work and depend upon their wage earnings. Meanwhile girls could spend that time investing in their education and playing.

Contrary to popular belief, the study noted that poverty is not the main reason for child labour, but the absence of a strong social norm against employing children and governmental response in providing facilities are.


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