300,000 children toil in India’s cotton fields

March 31st, 2008 - 11:41 am ICT by admin  

By Kavita Bajeli-Datt
New Delhi, March 31 (IANS) Making their way under the cover of darkness, unscrupulous dealers whisk away thousands of children from Rajasthan in trucks to neighbouring Gujarat to make them work in the state’s booming cotton fields. An estimated 300,000 children, most of them below 14 years, work in India’s cotton fields in subhuman conditions, say officials of the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights.

Though Gujarat is where most of them are headed, the children - mostly from the tribal belt of Rajasthan - are also taken to Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu.

Worried by this trend, the commission has summoned the secretaries of both Rajasthan and Gujarat Wednesday to its headquarters in New Delhi.

“We have asked the secretaries of both the states for consultation. We will be sitting together and will come out with a plan to be implemented in the two states to stop the migration of children to cotton fields,” commission chairperson Shantha Sinha told IANS.

“The issue is very serious and it needs our focussed attention as the trend continues to intensify,” she explained.

The commission was set up by an Act of Parliament in December 2005 in recognition of the need to ensure that children enjoy their childhood and all their entitlements as a matter of right.

India has the largest number of child labourers in the world today, with 12.7 million economically active children of 5-14 years, according to Census 2001. Unofficially, child rights activists put the figure at nearly 60 million. There are 420 million children in the age group of 0-18 years in the country.

Sinha said the four states - Gujarat, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu - account for 95 percent of total cottonseed production in the country, thus leading to a demand for cheap labour, she said. Gujarat is the largest producer of cottonseed.

She said they came to know about the trafficking of children, especially tribal children, when they held a public hearing on child labour last August in Rajasthan’s Dungarpur district.

“We found that national and multinational companies paid a commission to local agents from the tribal communities of Rajasthan to recruit children to work as cheap labour in the fields of Gujarat,” she said.

Sinha, who is the first chairperson of the commission, said they had heard horror stories about how children were trafficked from their villages and were vulnerable to health hazards and abuse.

“They are subjected to violence and toil for hours in the heat and dust. They also complain of headaches, giddiness and depression,” she added. “There is a growth in the number of child labour in the country, mainly in the informal sector and in agricultural activities,” Sinha said.

Following the meeting, the commission planned to crack down on this practice and is establishing a vigilance committee with officials and non-officials to prevent trafficking of children.

They also plan to construct housing facilities for the rescued children and provide them education.

Sociologist Neera Burra, who recently submitted a detailed report to the commission on the issue, said the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act, 1986, does not prohibit all forms of child labour, making it possible for many more children to be drawn into the labour force.

“The parents of these children are given some money and promised that their sons and daughters will live a better life - which is never the case. These dealers escape being detected, pack the children in trucks and take them away under the cover of darkness,” she said.

She added that the trend has been seen for the past few years, and most of the children come from the tribal belt of Rajasthan. “Some of these children also work as maidservants and in shops,” she explained.

Agreeing that the problem exists, Congress MP from Andhra Pradesh Madhu Goud Yaskhi said: “I have no reason to disbelieve that 300,000 children are working in cotton fields.

“I know that the practice is followed in Gujarat and other states. I know it is a huge number. And we politicians are as guilty for not taking up this issue seriously. We need to do something about child labour,” said the Lok Sabha MP, who was present at a meeting of the commission.

(Kavita Bajeli-Datt can be contacted at kavita.d@ians.in)

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