THE INDIAN seed industry, dominated by multinational companies, is a major employer of child labour, surveys have revealed. More than half a million children in India are growing cotton and vegetable seeds under hazardous conditions, including long working hours and exposure to pesticides.
Around 230,000 of them are below 14 years of age and several farms are controlled by reputed multinationals, according to the studies. The children produce the seed on the land of small and marginal farmers to which multinational and Indian seed companies have outsourced their hybrid seed production.
Two studies published by the International Labour Rights Forum ( ILRF) and the India Committee of the Netherlands ( ICN), however, showed some signs of progress.
" Child labour below the age of 14 in cottonseed production, though still a huge problem, has decreased in the past decade," said Davuluri Venkateswarlu, a Hyderabad- based social scientist who led the studies.
The change has been largely because of media attention and NGO intervention, Venkateswarlu said. " However, in vegetable seed production, there is reason to worry." The studies together covered most of cotton and vegetable production in Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu for cottonseed and Gujarat, Karnataka and Maharashtra for tomato, pepper, okra and brinjal seeds.
Of the 490 sample farms, nearly half ( 250) were located in Karnataka. While the problem has received attention in Andhra Pradesh, government intervention has been dismal in Karnataka, the biggest producer of vegetable seeds, Venkateswarlu said.
The proportion of child labour to the total work force on farms producing cottonseed for Bayer and Monsanto has dropped by more than half in 2003- 04 to less than 3 per cent in 2009- 10, the study noted. Multinationals such as Dupont, Dow AgroSciences, Bejo Sheetal, Advanta en US Agri as well as Indian companies have not taken any substantial step against child labour yet, it added.
Y. R. Mohana Rao, director ( human rights), Monsanto India, claimed that the company's child- care programme under NGO guidance reduced child labour in its cotton seed fields from 20 per cent in 2004 to less than 1 per cent in 2009.
Agricultural wages in areas of seed production had gone up. " But generally, official minimum wages are not paid, especially to women who generally earn 50 to 60 per cent less than men.Children earn even less," an NGO spokesperson said.
The report noted that some seed companies were relocating and expanding their cottonseed production to remote areas and small family- based set- up for cheap labour.
The report also dealt with gender and caste discrimination. Around 75 per cent of the work is done by women, especially girls. Women are not only paid much less for the same work, they often work longer hours. In most states, Dalits and tribals constitute the majority of the workers.
" In India, the largest number of child workers are in the farming- related sector," said Ashok Mathews Philip, executive director of South India Cell for Human Rights Education and Monitoring ( SICHREM). " This being an informal sector, with whole families working, interventions become difficult." " Children are made to work and they are not sent to school. It is illegal," Philip added. " Government interventions are often just a sham, half- hearted efforts."
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