Child labour and exploitation in India’s cotton fields

Shankar Bai was bent double, a gunny sack slung around her back. Momentarily she stopped work to look up at the burnt-out sky.

The red-coloured earth, and its dust, suffused with the sun’s fierce orange blaze cast a purple shimmer over the green cotton fields.

All was quiet save for the dull throbbing of a distant generator pumping water to the land.

Shankar stopped picking the bursting pods of raw grey-white cotton and wiped the sweat from her brow. Today she would endure at least eight hours of this back-breaking toil.

Working alongside her, picking as much cotton as their 30-year-old mother, were Shankar’s children: Kamlesh Singh, aged 12, Madhav, aged eight, and six-year-old Dungar Singh.

Younger siblings Gojya, aged four, and three-year-old Kavita played in the dirt nearby.

They are unwilling recruits of a massive forgotten army of child labourers, who work alongside their mothers and fathers from day to hard-scrabble day, families at the very base of India’s labour pyramid.

Here in the Saurashtra region of Gujarat, in the Amreli District of the Kathiawad Peninsular, cotton is king for eight months of the year, drawing tens of thousands of migrant worker families from Gujarat’s poorer neighbouring states, such as Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh.

The pickers work for eight months. Planting commences during the monsoon season and picking starts 80 to 90 days later in September or October.

It’s estimated that 60 per cent of workers are adult females, 20 per cent adult males and the remaining 20 per cent children.

There have been reliable reports of some cotton farmers exploiting coerced or forced labour workers from the landless, lower-caste Dalits and tribal Adivasi workers. Sexual harassment and rape of female workers has also been widely reported.

Estimates for the number of child workers in India are wholly unreliable. Ranging from 20 to 120 million children, no one - not the government, not the host of NGOs working with the poor and disenfranchised, not even the trade unions - knows the true figure.

Nonetheless, beyond dispute, it’s accepted that India has the highest number of child workers in the world.

Across the country there are millions of children working in flagrant contravention of national and state laws that outlaw hazardous work for children up to 18-years-old and casual or part-time work for children aged 14 and under.

A recent report by India’s National Commission for Protection of Child Rights states: “Several hundred thousand children – mostly girls – sacrifice their education and health to produce cotton for a thriving industry.”


World’s biggest cotton producers

According to figures supplied by the Cotton Corporation of India, in the 2014-15 season, ending this April, Gujarat state grew the largest cotton crop in India, producing 12.5 million bales of genetically-modified Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) cotton.

India produces some 40 million bales of cotton a year, around 8.7 million metric tonnes – almost 20 per cent of the annual global crop.

And it is estimated that this nation will soon supplant China as the biggest producer of cotton in the world.

In India land holdings and farms are measured in vighas (pronounced bigar).

The typical cotton farm in Gujarat ranges in size from 10 to 30 vighas (around six to 17 acres).

On average, each vigha will produce around 600 kilos of raw cotton per harvest.

The crop is weighed and traded per “mann”, the equivalent of 20 kilos.

Migrant worker families, on average, pick between three to four mann of cotton a day, for which they are paid 100 rupees (US$1.5) per mann.

This year Gujarat farmers sold their cotton at market for around 800 rupees per mann (US$12), meaning they made around 15,000 rupees (US$235) of profit per vigha of planted cotton – after paying wages and subtracting the cost of seed, inputs and fertilizers.


“I’m working here unwilling”

But despite the healthy profit, farmers are downbeat.

For Prakash Patel, a high-caste landlord, who owns a farm of 30 vighas in the Vithalpur vicinity of Amreli District tells Equal Times: “There’s not much of a future in cotton.

“Once upon a time the whole family used to work the land. Today nobody wants to farm.

“Soon we Patels will lose the land and the labourers will take over, because they are the ones making most money. Us farmers are not making any money,” he claimed.

Another cotton farmer, Ankur Kaswala, aged 26, said: “When we give the labour contract we tell them not to bring children; that it’s important for children to go to school. But they don’t listen to us.”

Yet landlord Kaswala’s insistence that “when the workers come here we take care of them” barely tallies with the truth.

His workers have to organise their own accommodation and food.

One family of cotton pickers visited by Equal Times slept on the land in a flimsy wooden lean-too, adjacent to a well and home to a swarm of mosquitoes. There was no toilet of any description, not even a primitive compost box.

Cooking was done over an open fire on a bald patch of earth in front of their shelter and they lived off a diet of millet porridge and home-grown vegetables.

There was a village school. But their children didn’t attend it. There was a sweet water village well. But they, as lower-caste Dalits, didn’t drink from it. And the nearest public health facility was some two-hours away in Amreli.

As unorganised workers they have little legal protection and receive no social security benefits.

They face the constant threat of exposure to chemicals used in pesticide sprays and the common risk of pulmonary diseases from microscopic cotton fibres and pollen.

(David Browne/Parachute Pictures)

“The corn crop we grow on our land at home is not enough for us to survive on. That is why we come here,” explained migrant worker Fumti Behru, aged 45.

“We make 50,000 to 70,000 rupees per season (US$780-US$1,100), so it’s good for us and we are coming,” she said.

“Before I couldn’t afford to have a house in my home village. But since working here I’ve been able to build my own house.”

But 12-year-old child labourer Kamlesh Singh, with a manner and bearing beyond his years, offered a harsher perspective.

“I don’t enjoy the work at all,” said the young cotton picker. “To tell you the truth I’m working here unwillingly. But I guess we have to do it. That’s the situation.

“I asked my parents about going to school. But they told me there was nothing in the house. They wouldn’t allow it. They said I have to work. So I have to work here.

“I have to do this in order for the family to survive.”