The Lost Childhoods of Gujarat’s Cotton Fields

Source: Kapil Dave | India Today

India Child Labour in CottonfieldsLike most teenage girls, Ramila would love nothing more than to fret over school examinations, pine for Bollywood hunks, hang out with her friends and frolic with her eight siblings. But for this shy 14-year-old from Barna village in the Kherwara block of Rajasthan’s Udaipur district, the joys of childhood are fleeting dreams.

Ramila the Cotton Worker

Ramila and 10 other children from her village had left the security and comfort of their homes to work in the fields for their families’ sake. Despite her father’s reservations, Ramila’s mother had allowed the Met (a labour agent from her community) to take her to plant Bt cotton seeds at a plantation in Gujarat.

And if the backbreaking work wasn’t hard enough, Ramila had to endure her employers’ verbal abuses, vulgar gestures and unwanted sexual advances.

Ramila recounts a terrifying episode when the Met had gone back to the village for Rakshabandhan. Her supervisor and employer had come to the sheds, where the girls slept, at midnight and asked two of the girls to step out with them.

When the girls refused to go, they entered the room hurling abuses, pulled a girl out of bed and told her to sleep on another cot. When she refused, the frustrated pair beat the young children for the next three days.

The ordeal ended only when the Met returned and was told of the beatings. Consequently, the children had to leave the farm without even receiving their wages.

Ramila is one of the lucky ones in that she managed to escape. Most children working in the fields can’t. Like Bhairav, an 8-year-old boy from Rajasthan’s Baswara district, who works in a farm plot near the Nokha village in Gujarat’s Banaskatha district.

Due to the pesticides he handles, Bhairav has an assortment of skin and respiratory ailments. Yet, he keeps coming back. His family needs the money.

Ramila and Bhairav are two names among the thousands of migrant child-labourers, aged between six and 15 years, who are siphoned every year to the cotton plantations of north Gujarat from south Rajasthan’s tribal districts through a human trafficking network.

This correspondent visited the fields in Gujarat’s Banaskatha district near the Rajasthan border to observe this problem firsthand and found that despite the claims of both the Gujarat and Rajasthan governments, innocent children risk their lives in these farms every day.

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