Cotton farms continue to employ children: survey

The Hindu

By K. Venkateshwarlu


Three months after pesticide exposure snuffed out three young lives, a survey has shown that scores of child labourers continue to be employed in hybrid cottonseed farms in several villages of Kurnool district, thanks to the failed promises of the seed industry and the Government's apathy.

The survey, conducted by the Mamidipudi Venkatarangaiah Foundation (MVF) in August as a follow-up to a meeting with multinational seed companies (MNCs), revealed that 1,538 children continue to slog in 105 cottonseed farm lots spread over 390 acres in "horrendous conditions" and are exposed to harmful pesticides. August, in fact, is considered a non-peak period.

`11 dead'

The MVF has documented the death of 11 children in the last few months, five from inhalation of pesticide and its after-effects, and six when the car transporting them to the workplace met with an accident. Two others suffer from nervous debility and stomachache, requiring constant hospitalisation.

A meeting between the MV Foundation and the MNCs followed community outcry over the ghastly incidents and the provision of lists of farm lots by the MNCs. The MNCs' estimate that the seed is grown on over 2,500 acres in Andhra Pradesh. During the peak season, 15 children are engaged for every acre of seed farm for the work of cross-pollination. In the non-peak time, the number comes down to eight.

Though the Association of Seed Industry (ASI) representing MNCs like Proagro and Syngenta publicly announced that no child labour would be employed, the reality is otherwise, says Shantha Sinha, Magsaysay awardee and the Secretary Trustee of MVF. "Children continue to be victims of physical and psychological abuse. Having accepted the problem, the MNCs and the national seed industry should take steps to end it."

A Child Labour Eradication Group has been created within the ASI to monitor the farms with the MVF. It was resolved to include a clause in the contract with farmers that no child would be employed.

"It looked promising, but has not translated into action fully at the field level. Until now, only Advanta and Syngenta have shared a copy of the contract," Ms. Sinha said.

Passing the buck

The terms of the contract were indicative of an unequal partnership and the liability of not meeting standards was passed on to farmers.

Reference to child labour was dismissed casually in a single line - that the grower would comply with "all Central and State laws, including the Child Labour Act."

The MV Foundation insisted that the MNCs terminate their contracts with farmers who employed children. But the MNCs claimed this was not possible, as they would lose access to the basic seed. Penalising errant farmers meant penalising themselves and sacrificing their profits.

All this while the Government remains a silent spectator.

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