Bt cotton thrives at cost of child labour

The problems and issues related to Bt cotton production in India have been well-documented. But, what is less known is the relationship between Bt cotton seed farming and child labour. A study  ‘Dirty Cotton’ by a team of researchers from Jawaharlal Nehru University and research agency Global March has established this link.

“Cross-pollination for production of Bt cotton seed is manual work and needs a large labour supply. As child labour is cheap, more children are brought into this business," said Dr Bupinder Zutshi, assistant professor, centre for the study of regional development, JNU, who led the study.

Bt cotton is genetically modified variety of cotton, meant to increase yield of cotton. But the seed yielded by the crop cannot be used for sowing in the next season. The option that the farmers have is to either buy seed from the manufacturing company, or go for manual cross-pollination in which male flower is rubbed against female flower for production of cotton.

“The government has put ceiling on sale of seeds and the farmers go for manual cross-pollination. As the farmers do not earn enough profit from Bt cotton cultivation, they go for child labour,” said Dr Zutshi.

About 33 per cent farmers surveyed in the study had taken loans with the average outstanding amount per farmer at Rs 15,890. 

The report mentions that in Gujarat and Andhra Pradesh, the worst states in the cultivation season of 2009-10, around 3,81,500 children below the age of 18 years were found engaged as labourers in cotton seed farms.

The authors found that profits earned from turning cotton into the final product is 850 per cent. The share of child labour in this is merely 0.8 per cent. For cotton seed production, the corresponding figures are 550 per cent and 2.5 per cent.

The report also questions the myth that children with ‘nimble fingers’ can better perform the delicate task of cross-pollination in Bt cotton seed cultivation.

According to the report, owing to the pressure by civil society regarding child labour Bt cotton seed production has relocated to impoverished and inaccessible areas to make use of cheap tribal labour, migrant labour and trafficked children from adjacent areas.

“Nearby tribal areas of Rajasthan like Dungarpur and Udaipur send children as contract labourers,” said Dr Zutshi.

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