New Internationalist

India’s forgotten cotton-picking children

31.07.15-Manually-decontaminating-cotton-at-Indian-spinning-mil-590x393.jpg [Related Image]
Manually decontaminating cotton before processing at an Indian spinning mill (2010). CSIRO under a Creative Commons Licence

Mari Marcel Thekaekara shines a spotlight on the underreported problem of child labour.

I always associated cotton picking with songs from the American deep-south. It conjured up visions of poor people, mostly African Americans. We associated cotton picking with southern slavery in America. Never with India. Inexplicably, given I have clear memories of detailed geography lessons about India’s agricultural patterns and cotton-growing states.

My lack of awareness on this particular issue is shameful to me because I’ve been an activist-writer for decades, covering adivasi rights since the 1980s. So why did I read and write so little about India’s cotton-picking children? Perhaps because child labour is still so rampant in India and the cotton fields lie beyond the gaze of the media. People working on dalit rights or women’s rights barely cope with their own huge workload; it’s difficult for the average NGO to do much on issues beyond their particular working area. So many dreadful atrocities simply don’t make headlines.

I first became aware of the issue from reports by the India Committee of the Netherlands, an international group committed to working on dalit, children’s and labour issues and confronting corporates and policymakers.

Yesterday, I read an update on the status of child labour in relation to the cotton-picking industry. The update states that ‘almost half a million – mostly dalit and adivasi – Indian children are working to produce cottonseed. Around 200,000 of them are below 14 years. This is one of the shocking results of the new study “Cotton’s Forgotten Children” by India’s long-term expert on the issue, Dr Davuluri Venkateswarlu.’

Equally shocking is that the number of children working in the cottonseed fields has increased by almost 100,000 since 2010. Children below 14 constitute around 25% of the work force. Another 35% comprise children between 14 and 18 years of age. The report criticizes Indian state governments, especially those of Gujarat and Rajasthan, for ‘not paying serious attention to tackle the issue’ and ‘being in the denying mood’. It also states that the ‘response of the seed industry as a whole to address the problem of child labour is minimal’.

The report concedes that transnationals like Bayer, Monsanto and DuPont, some local companies, government agencies, the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef), and a few NGOs have all tried to help reduce the number of young working children. In Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu there was a significant decline, of 42% and 69% respectively, of kids working in the seed fields. But because of the increased cotton-growing acreage, the numbers of children has increased by 70,000 since 2010 and the number of young children by almost 30,000, notably in Gujarat and Rajasthan. Many are almost bonded labour. Their parents accept a lump-sum payment and the children must complete contracts. Often children are forced to drop out of school to supplement family income. They work 8 to 10 hours daily and are paid wages far below the permissible official minimum. The same goes for adult women. This despite a December 2012 report, ‘Wages of Inequality’, also produced by the India Committee of the Netherlands. Large companies shirk responsibility by contracting the work out to exploitative intermediaries with no qualms about minimum wages. They don’t understand why child labour is wrong. It’s a completely Dickensian scenario.

There are thousands of NGOs doing excellent work on child rights. Unfortunately, there is so much to do that several groups of exploited children languish unnoticed in tiny pockets of our country. The Indian press constantly throw up horror stories of human rights abuse. But we need an effective national campaign to make people sit up and take notice.

We continue to pay lip service to the issue of child labour. I think more trustworthy NGOs, (unfortunately many are not) need to create reputable child rescue centres where children can be brought to safety. We still see little boys working in cafés and small eateries everywhere. I think the issue has finally begun to gnaw at people’s consciences both collectively and individually. But most people do not know a local ‘Childline’ to turn to, or what exactly to do, nor how to protest when confronted with a working child. A huge awareness campaign, a really effective news blitz, is desperately needed. Over to the people working on ‘Child rights’.

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  1. #1 Chandrika sen sharma 31 Jul 15

    I had no idea about Cotton picking child labor being so wide spread in India. Mari, it's great that you brought this shameful practice out into the public eye.

  2. #2 Sushant Rawat 01 Aug 15

    Cotton Picking in India generally done by manual, unlike many other countries like USA ,Brazil And Aus, In countries like Uzbekistan where govt forced people to do manual picking.
    The issue is more than that, as cotton require heavy doses of Pesticide which can be harmful for Childre
    In India with farmer struggling to get fair prices of their cotton, they tend to look for cheap labor, hence children.
    Many start up are trying to make affordable and light hand picking machine which will help farmer to reduce labor cost.
    I think that might be the solution for this problem.

  3. #3 sujatha 01 Aug 15

    dear mari
    i did not know about child labour in this area ....but i am not surprised by it. Child labour as you point out is not a hidden issue in india. you dont have to walk far from your house to see it in any part of india. i do agree with you that we are becoming conscious of the issue as a denial of childhood and of the rights of children...and as you point out most of us do not know what to do when confronted by it .

    it is i feel the responsibility of the Govt , both State and Centre, to blitz us with this information - of what to do. I would also think that they need to educate us about the consequences of the action of reporting for the child and her/his family socially legally and financially ...
    we need this information so that we can report with full assurance that the child and the family are protected.

    When i pause and think of certain instances where child labour is involved as in marginal farmers employing children for eking out a profit , i think i would like options whereby the farmer is not punished the first time; instead he/she should be educated about child rights and consequences of breaking the law.
    i guess what i am asking is this question - is the issue of child labour addressed on multiple levels by the government ? And by NGOs ?

    the other point that i wonder about after reading your article is the how of the remarkable strides taken by TN and AP in cutting down the number of children working in this area ? How did they achieve it ? Would you please write about that in a future article ?

    i travelled to uzbekistan in 2010 where i learnt of extensive use of schoolchildren in the harvesting of cotton by the government. The same govt officials and politicians protected their children from such work and exploitation by making the city and surrounds of Tashkent immune from this forced draft. You may imagine how this injustice gnawed at the heart of the rest of the country .

    i guess in an informal way we the elite of india protect our children similarly- through financial boundaries which the poor cannot afford.It is natural that we do , but i think we need to help construct boundaries for those who cannot use the financial one.

  4. #4 ludwig pesch 01 Aug 15

    Thanks for yet another insightful piece! Perhaps we need more naming and shaming, consistently and convincingly as here; this because ’horror stories of human rights abuse’ tend to fade as soon out of people's memories as the next wave of shocking news comes in (whether or not they reflect actual news, or conversely, serve to distract from real issues as this one).

    Your piece also makes it clear why governments would rather see NGOs be shut down – or simply denied entry to India and other so-called ’developing nations’ – than being confronted with their own failures. The complicity of the international garment industry is another issue and fortunately there's some progress:

    Enough progress as far as less affluent consumers are concerned?

    Hard to say, many among the ’working poor’ in the west don't even have the energy to think about the problems faced by their 3rd world peers! For instance, recently there was another advertisement campaign by Dutch HEMA (otherwise a highly respectable department store chain): children's cotton t-shirts at the price of a cappuccino! In other words, priced to turn a piece of garment into a ’use-and-discard’ item, not to be cared for!

    Each time I pass HEMA’s insensitive billboards, I wonder whether parents buying these shouldn't become aware that each such garment worn by a beloved kid, has been made cheap because countless hands have been abused; or – as evident from this blog – even young minds stunted for life because they are denied school and proper nutrition. And indeed, the actual figures are likely to be higher given the popularity of cheap cotton garments.

    So keep up the heat, and hopefully, get that HOTLINE going, with many well meaning compatriots ensuring that it will be staffed as long as it can liberate children and women from slavery; and raise support for a network that pressurises government agencies to do their duty, to live up to constitutions and international treatises signed in order to help all citizens to lead their lives in dignity!

  5. #5 Esi Dadzie 02 Aug 15

    Reading the above article I continue to realise that for good or bad we learn of one thing to find that there's so much more. What we can try to do is to find out more, try to speak up or live a life to reflect the need to stand up for others. It's not pie in the sky it's just plain caring for another!

  6. #6 Betty 03 Aug 15

    Naming and shaming - Hotlines etc aren't going to solve these problems. I think a collaborative approach, such as asking the State Govt of AP and Tamil Nadu how they effected change. It really must be a win-win situation for workers and farmers.

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About the author

Mari Marcel Thekaekara a New Internationalist contributor

Mari is a writer based in Gudalur, in the Nilgiri hills of Tamil Nadu. She writes on human rights issues with a focus on dalits, adivasis, women, children, the environment, and poverty. Mari's book Endless Filth, published in 1999, on balmikis, is to be followed by a second book on campaigns within India to abolish manual scavenging work. She co-founded Accord in 1985 to work with Adivasi people. Mari has been a contributor to New Internationalist since 1991.

About the blog I travel around India a lot, covering dalit and adivasi issues. I often find myself really moved by stories that never make it to the mainstream media. My son Tarsh suggested I start blogging. And the New Internationalist collective are the nicest bunch of editors I’ve worked with. So here goes.

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