- An estimated 1,30,000 children work in Andhra Pradesh’s cotton fields and ginning mills, most of them in Guntur district
- An average workday means 8-10 hours of back-breaking work
- Children, especially between the ages of 8 and 13, preferred because they’re more energetic; their small, tender fingers are more nimble
- Their health seriously jeopardised from inhaling fibre and toxic pesticides used in the fields
***It’s 8 am on Etukuru Road, a hub of about 120 cotton-ginning factories in Guntur city. Six girls, aged between eight and 13, hurry along, making their way past mounds of raw cotton into a couple of noisy ginning mills. Once inside, they waste no time picking up some baskets and loading them with cotton. They then walk to the machines and toss their bales in where the seeds are separated. "It’s child’s play," says their supervisor, with unconscious irony. It is indeed. This is what the children do non-stop from 8 am to 6 pm, making their rounds like whirring robots, only much faster. In all, there are about 400 ginning mills in Guntur city and labour officers admit there isn’t one where children don’t work.
Sheikh Janu, all of 12, shoots back a quick retort when asked why she is at the factory and not at school—"Khaana kaun daalega? Tum?" Janu makes Rs 60 a day and is assisted by her younger sister Mastani, whose age she refuses to reveal. The siblings put in eight hours a day and have to cough up a daily commission of Rs 20 each to the mill supervisor who has "helped" them land their jobs. Some children even work the night shift to make a little extra. Outside one of the mills, sisters Saida and Baji Bi, aged 11 and 13, collect scattered cotton which will be recycled. Saida Bi’s mother gets very agitated when she sees our camera. "Do you know how difficult it is to earn a living?" she asks. "Why don’t you take my daughters and get them married? I challenge you to give them a better life!"
There is no comfort or assurance you can offer the children or their parents. You wonder why factory owners prefer children for this job. Shafiq, a truck driver on the premises, provides us the answer. Children are more energetic, and much faster than adults, he tells us. And do the employers not fear punitive action? One labour officer, who accompanies Outlook to the mills, smiles when asked if surprise inspections happen regularly. "Of course they do," he say. "But the mill owners and managements are informed in advance. And palms are greased." It’s all very matter-of-fact, and everyone’s at peace.
There is little else one can do. M.V. Siva Kumar Reddy, Inspector of Factories, Guntur district, and Enforcement Officer, ilo project on Child Labour, says children found during factory raids are put in a transit home. "But the parents come and take them away almost immediately. And during another raid, a few days later, I find the same children working in a different factory." Cases filed under the Child Labour Regulation and Prohibition Act drag on for years together. Most owners produce fake medical certificates showing the age of the child as over 16, leading to their acquittal.
While ginning mills account for a good proportion of child labour in Guntur, it is in the agricultural fields that a majority of the children work. The 2001 census showed AP as having 13.6 lakh child labourers, with Guntur district alone accounting for 92,000. Officials in Guntur estimate this figure to be now over a lakh. While the state government is patting itself on the back saying child labour has declined as per the 5th economic census of 2005, the grim reality is only too visible in the fields of Guntur, where 1,75,000 hectares is under cotton cultivation. In every field we see, at least 10 workers are children. Girls below 13 are especially preferred during the cotton plucking season—their small, tender fingers ensure minimum damage to crop.
At a cotton field in Lemalle, 20 km from Guntur city, 11-year-old Bhulakshmi bustles around with a basket tied to her back, plucking the ripe crop. "I can’t stop to talk," she says as her grandmother reveals proudly how she can manage to pluck about 30 kg of cotton a day. Each kilo earns her Rs 3. Pradeep, 13 and his brother Dasu, 8, slaving away in the same field, boast that they sometimes manage to collect 35-40 kg a day.
In the fields of Peddakurapadu, transport minister Kanna Laxminarayana’s constituency, children in cotton fields are a common enough sight. As Sirisha, 12, Dhanalakshmi, 11, and their brother Rajesh, 13, walk towards the fields, tiffin boxes in hand, Sirisha says their school is absolutely empty during peak harvest season. "Even teachers ask us why we have not gone to work when we go to school at this time," she says amidst giggles. Outlook finds the story repeating itself in other areas of Guntur district—Sattenapalli, Narsaraopeta, Tadikonda, Mothakada, Rompicharla, Tadikonda, Tullur, Machavaram, Piduguralla, Dachepalli, Medikonduru, Gudipudi.
While respiratory and lung problems routinely assail children in ginning mills, the thorn-pricked hands of children in the cotton fields alert us of their constant exposure to poisonous pesticides. According to a recent study titled ‘Child Bondage Continues in India’s Cotton Supply Chain’— published on behalf of the India Committee of The Netherlands, the International Labor Rights Forum of the US, oecd Watch, German Agro-Action and One World Net nrw (Germany)—about 1,28,000 children work in the hybrid cottonseed fields of AP. The report also hints that the Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy government’s pro-farmer policy has unwittingly encouraged child labour since 2004, since authorities let farmers employing child labour off the hook easily.
State labour commissioner Satish Chandra insists there are squads to detect child labour in the fields. And farmers are being booked both under the Minimum Wages and Child Labour Acts, "so they just can’t get away," he declares. He claims that "regular workshops with local ngos, collectorate staffers and field visits have brought down the incidence of child labour in the state".
But Venkat Reddy, national convenor of the child rights ngo M.V. Foundation, dismisses that claim and says the confusion between the Child Labour Act and Factories Act results in poor enforcement. "Both departments blame each other and children continue to be employed," he says. Reddy feels a simple monitoring system by panchayats at the village level, along with monthly reviews at the district magistrate level, will show whether children are going to school or not and keep a check on factories employing children. "The main culprits are middlemen who supply children to factory workers and farmers. These men, who earn a commission from the children, say they feel they are doing a favour to poor families. It is essential to identify and penalise them," says Reddy.
Until then the state’s boast of a record growth rate of 9.83 per cent compared to the country’s average of 8.5 per cent will remain an empty one. AP’s progress in the agricultural and allied sectors is impressive but it has come at a heavy price—the price of childhood.