Lost childhood


Thousands of children lose their childhood working in cotton fields

hungerThe Cotton Corporation of India Ltd., which is a Government of India undertaking states that India accounts for 18 per cent of the world cotton production second to China and that it has the largest area under cotton production (12.2 million hectares); however yields are as low as 6.05 million metric tons which is 18 per cent of the yield in the world.

Raw cotton production is the source of sustenance for many farmers at the grassroots spread across 10 States and 3 zones: North (Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan), Central (Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra) and South Zone (Andhra Pradesh including Telangana, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Orissa). It is generally believed that improvement in the cotton yield is because of the launch of the Cotton Technology Mission in the year 2000, commercialization of BT seeds sometime around 2002, better farm management practices and developing high yielding varieties of seeds.

The Indian Cotton Advisory Committee projects that by 2025 the consumption of cotton by India will exceed that of China (projected India consumtion-8.3 MT while that of China-7.5 MT). The expected rise in cotton consumption in India may be attributed to two factors- locally available raw material, international demand for Indian cotton textiles and low labour costs.

Low labor cost is where the concern around children and the cotton connect comes from. Cotton is often called “White Gold.” However, just like where gold or diamonds are excavated, the area from where cotton comes also houses a lot of poverty. It also houses children who have lost their childhood. A child according to Indian labour laws is below the age of 14 years and cannot be employed in a hazardous industry, while according to other laws of the country it is anyone who has not completed 18 years in line with the United Nation’s Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) Article 1.

Then comes the question where in the entire cycle from raw cotton production to exports do children feature and why are we concerned about them. It wouldn’t be premature to indicate that one of the reasons why labor costs are low in India and thus one of the reasons for cotton industry boom could be a hidden segment of persons engaged in the cotton sector of which we do not have a count at all- children.

Engagement of children in the cotton sector

Let’s take a closer look at how at all cotton is produced. Cotton seeds are sown mostly mechanically followed by use of fertilizers and weeding. It is during weeding that generally children in the age group of 15-18 years are involved along with their parents and paid on the basis of area that they have cleaned. After this, cotton fields are irrigated and sprayed with pesticides and insecticides but there is no involvement of children here. Then comes time for cotton picking and poor families along with their children (all age groups) come to a farmer’s cotton farm to pick cotton (mostly between October to December).

It is during this period that children are most affected. They are pulled out of school by their parents to pick cotton along with them for almost three months if the family is extremely poor and on weekends and after school hours if the family is slightly better off. For those children who work as cotton pickers for the entire three months the work hours is the same as that of adults- 8 hours. These children pick almost the same quantity/weight of cotton as adults with their small nimble fingers. The work is unhealthy as children get scratched and infected because of pests such as whiteflies and the use of pesticides and insecticides. It also impacts their long term prospects as the break from school builds into disconnect between the child and studies after which they either drop out or lag behind in class.

When a child is supposed to play and has rights to basic education, food and good health, he is forced to pick cotton and earn a living to support his family. Children being sensitive to the needs of the family and exposed to abject poverty, drop out of schools and work as cotton pickers in the cotton season and as agriculture labour in other seasons (like harvesting wheat or transplanting paddy saplings or weeding fields). In the end, they lose out on their childhood and future.

The next stage of course is to store the cotton and bring it to a cotton yard for selling to industries and purchasing agents from where cotton goes to cotton industries that produce cotton bales and ginning industries for producing yarn and textile industries for production of cotton based products. Till it reaches the cotton industries there is no involvement of children. However, the scene is different when it reaches these industries. We do find children especially in the age group of 15 to 18 years engaged here as well as small children who are deprived from attending schools.

Adolescents in the age group of 15-18 years because of poverty look for work and are engaged as apprentices in cotton industries that convert raw cotton to cotton bales; engaged in ginning factories for converting cotton bales to yarn- mostly spinning and in cotton based product manufacturing industries such as textile production or towel production etc.

The process of converting raw cotton to cotton bales is mechanized and adolescents are involved in running these machines. The only requirement here is physical fitness. However, the process spews out tremendous quantity of tiny cotton bits that get into the nasal passage, impact breathing and cause chest pain so these adolescents cover their nose and mouth and hair with cloth but it’s not very effective. Often children working here get infection because of this.

In ginning factories adolescents join as apprentices and have no formal contracts, here again breathing cotton bits while converting cotton bales to yarn becomes a health issue. The same is the case with textile industries. Adolescents work in these factories in the non-agriculture season mostly as they are engaged in cotton picking during the cotton season.

In the cotton districts which harbor both cotton producers and cotton product manufacturers there is neither any count of children engaged nor any security. Thus in a silent manner, childhood is lost in the cotton picking districts of the cotton belts of India. Children are engaged in this sector by adults because they need financial support for the family. Farmers and industries gain at the expense of these children as they get labor at low cost.

The need of the hour therefore is to work at a policy level as well as at the grassroots for the wellbeing of children engaged in the cotton sector. There is an immediate need for redefinition of labor laws. But even more than that, there is need for studying and addressing health issues of those children who are involved in this work because of poverty. Finally, concerted effort is needed to pull children out of this unhealthy work and to send them back to school, which would require taking care of their basic financial needs otherwise they will again have to go back to work, in order to feed themselves and family. No child deserves that stark a choice.

Policy intervention needed

  • At a policy level there is a need to redefine labour laws. If children in the age group of 15-18 years can be engaged in the cotton manufacturing process then there should be clear instructions for having proper contracts and salaries with insurance and health benefits for them as well as scope to pursue studies along with work
  • There is a need to count the numbers of children engaged in cotton picking and manufacturing and strategies to either bring them back to school and strengthen their livelihoods be worked out as applicable
  • There is a need for studying the health impact of engaging children and adolescents in cotton picking and manufacturing and adequate health safety measures and disease prevention measures need to be in place
  • There is a need to engage with the local community and families, schools and teachers and the panchayat to ensure that children go to school and not labour in fields
  • Corporate Social Responsibility of cotton producing factories ginning and textile mills should not be limited to philanthropic and random health camps or distribution of pesticides for farmers. In line with Clause 135 and Schedule VII of the New Companies Act cotton industries and associations should focus on skill development, education and health of children and adolescents engaged in cotton picking and cotton industries of cotton producing States.
  • There is also a need for NGOs and Foundation to engage at the grassroots and at all levels to bring a better tomorrow for these children

Sonali Patnaik | The writer is Director, Arupa Mission Research Foundation, Gurgaon