Nine workers, including minors, died in Gujarat’s Bt cotton fields this season. Shobhita Naithani tracks their journey to misery’s minefield
IT’S TOUGH to crack Khadu Ram’s concentration as he tightens a jute rope tied around his right foot that is shielded only by frayed slippers. Then, without batting an eyelid, Khadu swings the rope around his collar, till a relative, disrupting his mad absorption, jerks it off. Khadu, 45, belongs to the Bhil tribe of Rajasthan. One of many who earns a meal for his family by either working under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS) or by farming his meagre plot of land; the produce of which is barely enough to feed his family of seven. To keep afloat for the rest of the year, Khadu sends his 14-year-old daughter Neeruva to work in Gujarat.
According to Dakshini Rajasthan Majdoor Union (DRMU), an NGO working to organise the labour force in the area, Neeruva is one of the two lakh tribal workers from Banswara, Dungarpur and Udaipur districts of Rajasthan who migrate to north Gujarat every year to execute the cross pollination work in Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) cotton seed plots (These districts have routinely provided agricultural workers to Gujarat – see box). The pollination season starts in June and ends in September. Adolescents below 18 years constitute 75 percent of the migrant workforce, almost a third of the workers comprises of children below 14 years. Of the total child labour workforce, about 42 percent are females.
A typical day for Neeruva would entail working for about 10 to 12 hours in two shifts. Beginning at 5 am, she would pluck the male cotton flowers, sun dry the stamens and then manually crossfertilise it with the female flowers, which she has tagged the previous evening by slitting the bud with her fingernails. For this painstaking job she gets paid Rs 60 a day, Rs 40 less than the legal entitlement under the Minimum Wages Act, 1948. While on “duty”, she and the other children stay in makeshift shelters, not more than 10 feet by 12 feet, in the middle of the farm. She sleeps on the floor sharing the space with other boys, and cooks and bathes in the open.
This July was the second time Neeruva went to Gujarat. And like the previous year she came back home early and empty handed. “Bas bukhaar aur bura pet dard le ke lauti thi (She had fever and a bad stomach ache when she came home),” says Khadu of his daughter. But Neeruva was fortunate unlike her cousin Pyari.
The oldest of the three siblings, Pyari, 14, left for Gujarat for the fifth term of cross-pollination on July 26. Her father Kamji Karadi works as a part-time carpenter in the hilly mohalla (neighbourhood) of village Khatibor, 70 kilometres from Udaipur city. Earnings were never sufficient to feed the family and therefore a part of the onus to bear the financial burden fell on Pyari early on. Every time she would return, the annual family income would be given a boost of Rs 2,000. This year, much to her parent’s dismay, Pyari returned sooner than usual with no cash but high fever, a severe stomach ache, a frail voice and a missing appetite. Two days later, on August 14, she lost her voice completely, drank not even a drop of water and died later that evening. The parents didn’t want a post-mortem lest doctors “steal her organs”.
Pyari is one of the nine workers who died in Gujarat this pollination season. Six of them were below 18 years. Three of the six died of snakebite, two a few days after they came down with high fever and one from “respiratory seizure”. Post-mortems were conducted only in the deaths caused by snakebites. In the other cases, parents like Pyari’s steered clear from the drudgery of getting a post-mortem and lodging an FIR. DRMU activists say most of the deaths go unreported as no post-mortem is conducted and the mete (middleman) who takes the children to Gujarat “settles” the issue with the deceased labour’s family by paying them compensation.
Parents don’t want post-mortems done, fearing that doctors will ‘steal organs’
Gujarat occupies the number one spot in the production of both cotton and cottonseed. According to the Cotton Corporation of India the state produces roughly 35 percent of the total raw cotton of the country. Children are preferred for cotton farming because they have nimble and small fingers, which are suitable for manual pollination. Being a low plant, they are able to pick cotton quicker and more easily than an adult. They also make for cheap labour and don’t question and demand their basic right to life.
IN VILLAGE Biliya Badgama of Rajasthan’s Dungarpur district, Punji Lal Ahari is still mourning the loss of his 14-year-old daughter Haju. Ahari’s wife Pushpa sits still, feebly staring into oblivion. Haju went missing on August 17, the day she went to the only market in the vicinity, about 10 kilometres away, to buy groceries. When she didn’t return that evening, Ahari looked for her in the market, enquired from neighbours and ultimately returned home unsuccessful. He skipped going to the police lest they “extort money from him”. About 25 days later, Ahari was called to the Varda thana, about 10 km away. There lay his daughter wrapped in a soiled bed sheet after the post mortem. A dead snake lay next to her body. Ahari was told the cause of the death was snakebite. As the angry crowd gathered at the thana refused to take Haju’s body, the cornered middleman, who allegedly took the girl to Gujarat, to save his skin and avoid a police case, paid Ahari Rs 1.05 lakh as compensation. Ahari chose to not spend that money and exhaust his energy in a police case.
Children make for cheap labour and don’t demand their basic right to life
Metes belong to the same socio-economic background as the workers. They hire groups of girls and boys for the plot owners in Gujarat. In almost all cases of child labour, metes are known to the families sending their children, thereby establishing some sort of trust. The majority of the farmers reported giving advances to metes to secure labour supply. The final settlement with the child’s family is done at the end of the season after deducting travel, treatment days during which illnesses rendered the children jobless and provisions expenses leaving the family with less than half the actual money earned. But parents continue to let their children lend a hand to get the family out of their hopeless poverty.
Suman Sahai, convenor of Gene Campaign feels it’s wrong to link the issue of Bt cotton to all these deaths. “Your ability to criticise Bt cotton loses credibility,” Sahai says, “But yes, children should not be working in agricultural fields. The added danger in Bt cotton, contrary to what the seed companies claim, is that pesticides are being used. Stomach ache and fever among children are more likely a result of pesticide inhalation. But a snake bite can happen anywhere.”
‘The deaths are a result of hard laborious work and inhaling of pesticides which are harmful even to adults. The government will have to ban child labour to put an end to this’
Chairperson, National Commission for Protection of Child Rights
‘This year there has been a drastic decrease in the number of children employed in Gujarat. By next year there will be none’
Gujarat Rural Labour Commissioner
‘The added danger in Bt cotton, contrary to what the seed companies claim, is that pesticides are being used. Stomach ache and fever are more likely a result of pesticide inhalation’
Convenor, Gene Campaign
‘The problem is that officials announce it to the world when they go on inspections. It gives the plot owners time to clean up their act’
Executive member, DRMU
Bt cotton, the first genetically modified (GM) crop, was introduced in India in 2002 after the Government of India licensed MMB Limited, a joint venture of the multinational company Monsanto and the Indian seed company Mahyco, to grow it. Monsanto later sub-licensed 21 Indian companies to grow the seed and sell it. The Bt seed becomes infertile after one use, therefore restricting its use for the next season. The farmers therefore are invariably dependent on the company to supply them fresh stocks of seeds each season.
Less than five minutes after our entry into a Bt cotton plot in village Mesan in Gujarat’s Sabarkantha district, about 25 farmers swoop down on us. They deny employing child labour. Even as they claim to have signed an anti-child labour employment deed with their seed company, a group of girls rests on a cot, while another one cooks food. Some children stand on the road leading to the farm. “Lakshmanbhai from Udaipur’s Kherwada block is our mete,” one of the girls had told us before the farmers confronted us. Farmer Dhirubhai Patel swears not having employed a single child for his plot. And then, carelessly causing his own ruin, he introduces us to Lakshman – “meet the mete who gets my labour from Rajasthan,” says Dhirubhai.
Farmers attribute manipulative pricing policies of seed companies for employing child labour in the past. “Although labour rates and input costs have been going up, the companies refuse to pay us more. Today a company buys seed from me at Rs 250 to Rs 270 per kg. But they sell 450 gms of seeds for Rs 900 which in the black market can even go as high as Rs 2,000,” says Dhirubhai.
In 2007 DMRU launched a campaign against child labour trafficking, backed by the district administrations of Dungarpur and Udaipur. According to a report of the Gujarat government, during 2008-09, 13 teams were formed to inspect the farms in Gujarat. A total of 4,618 farms were inspected and 35 children were found working there. “The problem is that the officials announce it to the world that they are going on an inspection,” says Sudhir Katiyar of DMRU. “That gives the plot owners enough time to clean up their act,” he adds. When we visited Gujarat unannounced, there were several plots where children were working. In two instances, a group of children who did not look older than 10 or 12 years, on seeing us, vanished in the fields within seconds, some lied about their age, while the others continued with their work. Despite this, Gujarat Rural Labour Commissioner K Ninama is confident of a change for the better. The deaths are a wake-up call for the officials to ban child labour. “This year there has been a drastic decrease in the number of children employed. By next year there will be none,” he assures.
ANOTHER GOVERNMENT official casually remarked that they cannot take legal action because the children working in the agriculture sector are not covered under Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act. But Shanta Sinha, chairperson, National Commission for the Protection of Child Rights, disagrees. “They can very well use the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act because most children come on labour against advances taken by the family,” she says. “The employers can also be slapped a case under the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, which says child labour is a cognizable offence as children are subject to a non-protected environment.” Referring to the recent cases of deaths, Sinha says: “They are a result of hard laborious work and inhaling of pesticides which are harmful even to adults. The government will have to ban child labour to put an end to this.”
As the interminable debate – whether child labour is a source of income for the poor or clearly a cause of their poverty – rages on, one among the many who are still toiling in the fields of Gujarat is Khardu’s eight-year-old daughter. He, awkwardly, admits having sent her despite an ailing older daughter and the death of a 14-year-old niece. But Khardu is one among many in his tribe who, out of sheer misery and desperation, continue to send their children to work in Gujarat. Ask why? “Laalach. Varna kya karoon? Khudkushi? (Greed. What else should I do? Commit suicide?)” says Khardu as he plays with the rope around his collar.