Now Reading
Tiny Hands That Till

Tiny Hands That Till

The Covid-19 lockdown compounded the precarious lives of India’s child labourers in agriculture

The memory of Jamlo Makdam will haunt us forever. Shouldn’t a 12-year-old have been safe with her parents during the Covid-19 lockdown? Instead, the young tribal girl from Chhattisgarh was away working as a farmhand harvesting chilies in the southern state of Telangana.

After the first phase of the lockdown, with no transport to ride, she walked for three days in the scorching summer of the pandemic, perhaps with a bag of chilies, through forests and hills. Just 30 kilometres from her home, exhausted, dehydrated and hungry, Jamlo collapsed to her death.

She was one among several hundred migrant workers for whom just a journey back home turned into their very last.

The blow of the global coronavirus emergency has been inequitable, at least in India; those already vulnerable have borne a greater brunt of lockdowns imposed to maintain social distancing. The restrictions were conceived with no thought on how informal workers who are the backbone of India’s work force would cope. Even among them, the most defenseless is the child labourer – whose shoulders may be small, but they carry the weight of poverty, fending for their families on the margins.

The lockdown left many child and adolescent labourers stranded. Some were trapped in factories and manufacturing units with little to eat. Others who worked as seasonal labourers had no transport to go home. They bore the brunt as everyone else, of no income in addition to already being exploited.

Just as the lockdown has eased while factories still being shut, agents have been putting child labourers on buses to send them back to their villages. UNICEF has warned that millions of children will be in danger of becoming child labourers with the rise of global poverty after Covid-19, facilitated by the widespread closure of schools.

At least 152 million children, which is a tenth of children worldwide are estimated to be in child labour.

Like Jamlo, India has an 10.1 million child labourers between the ages of five and 14. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) defines a “child” as a person below the age of 18, unless the relevant laws recognise an earlier age of majority.

In India, children below 14 cannot be employed, but can work in family enterprises after school. An amendment to the Child Labour Act in 2016 prohibited adolescents (children between 14 and 18 years) to work in hazardous industries, but the government reduced the number of hazardous industries to include only mining, explosives and occupations in the Factory Act.

Children as Farmhands

Across the globe, it’s the agriculture sector that employs the most children. In India too, agriculture accounts for over 50 percent of child labour. They perform a number of activities such as sowing, weeding, harvesting and looking after livestock. In the last decade, the rampant use of children in hybrid seed production has also come to focus.

One wonders what Jamlo’s life in the chili fields was like. Her group returning on foot to Chhattisgarh had three other child labourers like her. Tribal workers, including children, are employed seasonally as harvesters across the states of Telangana and Andhra Pradesh, an area that produces 50 percent of India’s chilies.

In Telangana, tribal migrants come predominantly from the states of Chhattisgarh and Orissa, while Andhra Pradesh sees interstate migration of workers from backward areas. The chilies are plucked in five harvests as they ripen and change colour from green to flaming red.

A project, called People’s Archive of Rural India, reported that the workers on these fields return home with sacks of chilies. They prefer to be paid in chilies, a condiment that’s indispensable to their food, instead of money when the work is done. They save a portion of it for their yearlong use, and sell the rest in local markets back home.

In India, the pandemic coincided with the rabi (spring) harvest and marketing time. While the government eased restrictions after first phase of the lockdown to allow agricultural activities, the ground reality was far from it. In many parts of the country farm workers did not know they could work.

Seventeen-year-old Gorur Sudha from Hiremalanakeri in Bellary district in northern Karnataka is a member of the Bhima Sangha, a union of working children supported by The Concerned for Working Children.

The only earning member in her family of nine, which includes her grandparents, four younger siblings and an elder sister with special needs, she has hardly earned in weeks.

“I haven’t gone to work since March. In May, I wore a mask and went to work for five days. Workers were afraid to venture out,” she said.

Until May, the family received little aid. All they got was 10 kilos of rice per person, and a measly 1 kilo of bele (lentils) for the entire family. “We bought essentials on credit and owe the local shopkeeper 5,000 rupees since the lockdown, while debt from my father’s medical expense is 150,000 rupees,” she said.

Her father, who also worked as an agricultural labourer, was injured when he took their cow grazing and it was attacked by another cow. He intervened and was left with a broken back and unable to work any longer. The cow he tried to protect had to be sold off with its calf to meet his medical expenses. But the biggest loss was that Sudha dropped out of school after Class IX.

“I was very depressed. I didn’t go to school to tell my teacher, because I thought she would scold me,” she said.

Since then, she has worked as a farm labourer in her village, and villages around, for a daily wage of 150 rupees. She meets two or three girls in the morning, teenagers like her, and heads to the fields with her packed lunch for a 9-AM to 5:30-PM shift that stretches to a seven day working week. “No holidays on festivals,” she said. She works in wheat and vegetable fields. A big part of the job is harvesting, while she also does weeds, adds manure, irrigates and cleans the fields when needed. Injuries – slashes and cuts when harvesting – are common, and the girls go to the doctor only when they can.

The lockdown coincided with the time when girls from the village, about 8-10 from her friends circle, go out and work in other villages. Agents arrange for autos to nearby places where the girls harvest groundnut, onions, sunflower, wheat, corn and cotton.

This year, she just stayed at home. In the mornings, she fetched 15-20 pots of drinking water for the entire family as usual. Rest of the day, there is enough domestic chores. “I don’t have a TV or radio. When I am happy, I like to sing,” she said. “But I haven’t been singing much.”

Like her, 17-year-old Umesh, an agricultural worker from the Nandihalli area in Bellary, is also a member of the Bhima Sangha. He dropped out of school at 15 to support his family financially, particularly to help with education of his five other siblings. “My mother fell ill and we borrowed money to pay school fees,” he explained.

The lockdown has meant no work for nearly two months. He could not buy any seeds to cultivate crops in a plot of land the family owns. Since the lockdown, there has been no drinking water either.

Weeks of no jobs have pushed agricultural workers, who already deal with burdens of debt, into further poverty. “We have exhausted the little savings we had to buy food and essentials after the lockdown. I still have a debt of 40,000 rupees to repay from before,” he said.

Children on farms face many occupational hazards such as several hours of hard physical labour, including standing, stooping and bending in the sun with few breaks; exposure to pesticides, injuries from tools, snakes bites, lack of basic facilities at work sites, etc. The circumstances that compel them to abandon studies and work leave them isolated. Not completing their education keeps them doing low paying jobs as adults, with few chances of transcending the circumstances that led to poverty in the first place. Many also experience stress as a result of financial obligations to their families.

Child labour in Seed Production

Davuluri Venkateswarlu, director of Glocal Research, is one of India’s foremost experts in child labour in agriculture.

His research found that farmers preferred children, particularly girls in hybrid cottonseed production and vegetable seed production for seed companies. Producing hybrid seeds involves cross pollination of two plants – stamens are manually removed from the flower, a task children with their nimble hands are able to perform well.

“We know that agriculture employs a huge percentage of labour and there hasn’t been much change in this. In commercial agriculture, children are employed primarily in the harvesting of several important crops; in seed production you find children in the hybridisation process. There are some areas where child labour will be more prevalent now [during the pandemic] – such as in cotton harvesting, in tomato, chilly and watermelon harvesting.”

While, earlier, children were employed full-time in farming, there has been a transition of combining work and school – the category of children harvesting part-time has grown, he noted.

“However, migrant children who work as seasonal labour have to completely forgo school during the harvest period,” he said.

The primary motive to employ children is the reduction of production costs.

“Farmers are under tremendous pressure to cut costs. The agriculture sector is in a crisis. They may lose a crop. There is a lot of uncertainty of prices. Children can be made to work long hours and paid less than minimum wages. Another important reason for employment of children is that they can be easily controlled. Adults may not work properly, there will be many complaints, but children will not be assertive. Even if they pay minimum wages, there is a preference for children.”

The employment of agricultural labourers, particularly migrant workers including children, happens through a network of middlemen, who are often from the same villages as the labourers. These agents are approached by farmers with their need, paid to bring in labour, and they in turn offer advances and loans to parents and recruit workers.

Research over a decade ago found that over 90 percent of hybrid cotton seed producing companies in northern parts of the western state of Gujarat employed children, all of who were tribal migrant workers.

In his research on cottonseeds, Venkateswarlu found that 48 percent of the labourers were children, with a higher proportion (28 percent) in the 15-18 years bracket.

In the last decade, foreign seed companies have made some efforts to monitor their supply chains in India as a result of advocacy against child labour in their countries. Farmers who employ child labour are blacklisted, and incentives are offered to those who make efforts to check child labour.

Children from Marginalised Communities Work More

Talking of communities that children are recruited from, Venkateswarlu said that in states such as Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh, children employed were almost exclusively adivasi, or Indigenous Peoples, while in south India, the labour included those who are from lower castes as per the Hindu caste system.

In south India, there are more girls engaged in farm-work, while in north India the proportion of girls and boys is almost equal, he said.

See Also
Vaccine Hesitancy Impedes India’s Inoculation Drive

Like adult workers in the informal sector, children are from marginalised communities.

According to the Children of India report, child labour is highest among Scheduled Tribes (Indigenous Peoples) at 16.6 percent households, followed by Other Backward Class (people from castes that are educationally or socially disadvantaged) at 12.2 percent, and Scheduled Castes (lowest caste people, also known as Dalits) at 11.6 percent.

A survey by the state labour department last year found that 80-90 percent of child labourers in Telangana were from Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes communities.

Caste hierarchy in the Indian society historically relegated menial labour, including agricultural labour, to the lower castes. A majority of Dalit farmers are landless, while Scheduled Tribes have land that is often inaccessible without roads and irrigation. This history of marginalisation means some communities are more compelled to work in low-paying farm work for others.

In her article in the Economic and Political Weekly on the intersection of caste and child labour in the eastern state of Bihar, journalist Kavita Chowdhary wrote that child labour must be viewed as a caste issue.

“One needs to understand that the impoverishment inherited by these communities due to their socio-economic conditions forces their children to contribute to the family income, and therefore, a blanket approach to the issue would not provide envisaged results.”

Education and Child Labour

Access to education has been shown to be one of the most effective ways to reduce child labour.

Research has found that in areas in India with affordable education, economic stress has not led to rise in child labour. How education is facilitated and children are retained in schools determines whether they work.

The Mamidipudi Venkatarangaiya Foundation (MVF) has so far rescued one million children from labour and mainstreamed them to schools. They create child labour free zones where all children in an area attend full-time, formal schools.

In India, education is a fundamental right of children below 14 years, but an estimated 84 million children do not attend schools. When, through interventions, children are able to go to schools, the schools are unable to retain those from marginalised communities.

“Schools are not ready for the first-generation learners, children of Dalit communities and backward classes, and girls face discrimination resulting in many of them being pushed out of schools. Children who remained in schools have not learnt anything at all. Failure of the schools to retain children and giving them a learning guarantee has resulted in wastage of childhood, gross injustice, deprivation of the right to education and has led them to joining the labour force,” said Venkat Reddy, MVF’s national convener.

COVID-19 and Child Labour

The pandemic will increase “educational inequality,” Reddy said.

In India, with only 8 percent of student households that have access to computer and the internet,  remote education cannot be universal. With schools shut across the country, and parents who have not earned for months, children are more likely to be involved in child labour.

“After the lockdown, children who worked in their own houses with their families have a somewhat protected environment. The risk is great for children who have left homes, have been trafficked as child labourers, trapped in sweatshops – bangle making, embroidery, garments, textiles, production of shoes, brick kilns and agriculture work – living in congested spaces. The lockdown made their lives unbelievably harsh. As child labour is illegal, employers just abandoned children to fend for themselves. Many children were left with no choice but to remain in their dwellings uncared and unwanted,” he said.

Among migrant families, some have children below six years who suffer from malnutrition, other children in the age group of six and above work with parents and may go to nearby schools. The living places are at work sites, and, in the context of Covid-19, it is very difficult to maintain physical distancing and have nutritious food.

Unemployment in India was at a 45-year-high last year. In April alone, the Covid-19 lockdown saw the loss of 120 million jobs for small traders and daily wagers. Enterprises trying to cope with the economic loss of the pandemic furthers the danger of children being employed to provide a cheaper labour.

According to Reddy, there were no measures by the State to safeguard child rights during the pandemic. “The efforts of the government have been negligible towards all such children stuck in different parts of the country. There have not been any specific announcements to mitigate their suffering. Unless there is a watch on children and their rights, government support for families and children’s education, it is quite likely that there would be an increase in child labour,” he warned.

A compensation of 500,000 rupees was announced for Jamlo’s parents Andoram and Sukamati Makdam by the state government. Jamlo studied till Class III  and had to drop out to look after her family bullock carts. Working in chili fields was her first time going to work outside the state.

Sudha, when she was younger, thought she’d become a doctor. “I think children should go to school so they have a future, otherwise they will have to work under the hot sun every day,” she said.

We do not know what Jamlo’s dreams were.

StoriesAsia, a collective of independent journalists from 16 South Asian and Southeast Asian countries, seeks to replace the present-day parade of faceless numbers with humanising narrative nonfiction – a largely ignored journalistic genre in the region.

© 2018-2020 StoriesAsia. All Rights Reserved.