Child labour in cotton fields: A tale of lost childhoods and intermittent schooling

Gattu mandal in Mahabubnagar was recently in the news after hundreds of school students and parents sent over 1600 post cards to High Court Chief Justice – from Kesavaram, Chintala Kunta, Mittadoddi, Yellamdoddi, Chagadona, Arigadda and Boyalagudem villages – in the district, informing the court that they are deprived of teachers. MV Foundation Mandal Co-ordinator Mr. Chakali Srinivas shares some compelling details about the social problems faced by children in this region.

Mr. Chakali Srinivas, Gattu Mandal MVF Co-ordinator
Mr. Chakali Srinivas, Gattu Mandal MVF Co-ordinator

With 24 gram panchayats (villages) and 19 habitats, Gattu mandal largely depends on rain-fed agriculture, with mainly cotton farmers. Farmers, including landless farmers, account to 2,142, growing cotton seed in 2,422 acres of land in the mandal. It is an open secret that children are rampantly employed to cross-pollinate cotton flowers, according to Srinivas.

As per last year’s statistics, his records say that over 4,216 children are employed in cotton farming.

A little boy in Chagadona village in Mahboobnagar district cross-pollinating flowers in cotton fields. The villagers justify child labour, attributing it to lack of teaching staff in the schools.
A little boy in Chagadona village in Mahboobnagar district cross-pollinating flowers in cotton fields. The villagers justify child labour, attributing it to lack of teaching staff in the schools.

Srinivas says there are several issues that push children into work, thereby turning them into drop-outs, and they stay illiterate. As I walk with him through the villages, his presence is widely acknowledged by village elders, including the Sarpanch (village head), teachers, Child Rights Protection Forum (CRPF) volunteers, community leaders, and villagers, young and old. He is one of the most respected persons in the Mandal, as a crusader for Child Rights. Things seem to be pretty normal, except that the farming community has heavily invested in cotton farming and is reeling in deep debt.

But that is the adults’ problem. How are children affected?

When I ask him the same, Srinivas emphasizes that is exactly the problem. He sports a frown on his face when he says ‘child rights are violated at every level due to the cotton farming, especially girls’ rights’.

Children working in cotton fields at Chagadona village, Mahabubnagar district, Telangana
Children working in cotton fields at Chagadona village, Mahabubnagar district, Telangana

But what about the lack of teachers in the school? Children do want to study, and if we send enough teachers, I think all problems will be solved.

As I converse with him about the same he explains the complexities they deal with, in a patient manner, for my ignorant urban mind to grasp the gravity of the situation.

Child working in cotton fields in Mahabubnagar district of Telangana
Child in school uniform working in cotton fields in Mahabubnagar district of Telangana

‘Yes, there are 36 primary schools, 11 upper primary schools and 9 Zilla Parishad High Schools in the Mandal with 10,344 children going to school.’

The numbers he shows are as per 2014-15 enrolment door to door campaign he conducted with the help of CRPF Volunteers and 35 community mobilizers from MV Foundation. For over 10K students, the allotted teachers were 194, of which 104 teachers applied for transfers and left the place, leaving students to fend for themselves.

Girls studying at MV Foundation's bridge camp at Ieeja, Mahabubnagar
Girls studying at MV Foundation’s bridge camp at Ieeja, Mahabubnagar

With 90 teachers for all 10,344 enrolled students, and some schools with no teachers at all, some operating with 1 teacher, enrolment is not the only challenge, but retention is a bigger one.

Hence the post card campaign.

Several women become grandmothers before they reach their 40th year
Girls face a bleak future as Child Marriages are rampant in the region. Several women become grandmothers before they reach their 40th year

According to the Govt. Order no. 11 Telangana Rationalisation Guidelines/Norms, there should be 1 teacher for every 30 students in government schools. But this G.O is yet to be implemented in Gattu.

“Gattu is considered as a ‘punishment area’ for teachers,” says Srinivas, “as there are no transportation facilities to reach remote villages. Some of them are so disconnected that teachers opt for transfers using political influence without even reporting for work. There are 6 schools without teachers, 7 schools with 1 teacher manning over 100-150 students from class 1 to class 9. We need adequate and quality teaching staff for our mandal. Else, all the best efforts we put in to bring children to school fall flat. I hope things change soon,” he adds.

The region is drought-ridden with failing crops due to bad monsoons, illiterate farmers who sow cotton year after year, ignoring the level of pesticides they are inhaling and putting into soil in the process. Yet, they stand up and listen when the Child Rights volunteers ask them to send their children to schools. They are very keen that their children get education, which they themselves were deprived of. ‘But where are the teachers?’ – this question keeps coming back.

Against all odds, Srinivas and his team of volunteers managed to enroll 1086 students in schools in 2015-16 academic year.

With lack of qualified teachers, the volunteers doubled up, teaching the students themselves at some schools. But that is not the reason for drop-out rates in mid July and August, according to Srinivas. The cotton fields require cross pollination with hands, and children serve the best as they have tiny hands and do a masterful job without taking breaks.

Boy in school uniform cross pollinating in cotton fields
Boy in school uniform cross pollinating in cotton fields

We had a chance to interact with a few farmers who openly admitted bringing in children for Rs. 7,000 a month, and paying Rs. 500 per child to the middleman from neighbouring villages. These children, who have their names enrolled in schools, drop-out from schools during these two months to work in the fields. They come in batches and stay with the farmer’s family, and work from 6 AM to 6 PM without taking any breaks, except for a quick lunch.

The farmers who hire these children justify it saying that they take the entire responsibility of the well-being of the children who work for them.

This is the same story which an urban employer will tell you when confronted about employing children as domestic helps.

Girls at MV Foundation's Ieeja bridge camp
Girls at MV Foundation’s Ieeja bridge camp

But the children who work in cotton fields are also exposed to the worst form of pesticides which are sprayed once to thrice a week. The children are clueless about hygiene, and do not wash their hands before eating, and often fall sick, and some even die without proper and timely medical care.

We interacted with children at MV Foundation’s bridge camp, which is the interim facility for girls to study before they are absorbed into regular government schools. We found that several girls still suffer the after-effects of working in pesticide-ridden farms year after year.

Some of them started working when they were as young as 5 years in the cotton farms, and spent years doing the cross pollination, before the volunteers brought them to the bridge camp.

The volunteers work relentlessly on mobilizing the communities, performing street plays, singing songs, and convincing parents to send drop-out children back to schools.

The problems do not just stop here. By November-December, the cotton crop is ready for harvest, and children are called back by parents for making a quick buck as an additional pair of hands. Soon after the cotton harvest, some families migrate to Guntur for chilli harvest and take the children along with them. Then comes Sankranthi festival in January, followed by the wedding season. Most of the adolescent girls are married off, and school seems like a distant dream for many of them who succumb to family pressures.

It is not that farmers who cultivate cotton make a hefty profit after the harvest.

Year after year, due to bad monsoon in the rain-fed region of Gattu, each farmer has accumulated loan after loan from moneylenders. Children often continue to work with adults, as they feel they should help their debt-ridden families, and they migrate en masse to cities to work at construction sites. Children end up in cities as construction labourers or domestic workers.

“The numbers at the beginning of the academic year in villages look promising, but the children dropping out is known a fact. Lack of teaching staff pushes children out of school. That is often used as an excuse. MV Foundation opened a Bridge camp in Aiza mandal, which is close by, to help children pick up on missed academics, and later get absorbed into Government residential schools. But there is still a lot to do,” says Srinivas who shares his reports on children in Gattu mandal.

Girls having lunch at MV Foundation's Bridge Camp in Ieeza, Mahabubnagar
Girls having lunch at MV Foundation’s Bridge Camp in Ieeza, Mahabubnagar

One look at the abstract raises more questions about the underlying social problems of the farming community and migrants from Mahabubnagar who end up as urban slum dwellers.

The ruling party leaders promised KG to PG (Kindergarten to Post Graduation) free education for residents during 2014 elections. The state leadership now seems to be oblivious of the Children’s Rights issues, along with the mounting number of farmers’ suicides and related social problems.

I hope the Telangana government wakes up from coma and connects the dots, at least now.

This article was published on SaddaHaq.com 

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