Children drop out of school for two months a year to help their parents. Many are also married off in order for families to have more hands to work the fields.

Ground report How cotton cultivation in Gadwal is affecting childrens education
news Child Rights Saturday, November 25, 2017 - 09:46

To the extreme south of Telangana near Kurnool is the Jogulamba Gadwal district. The district is most popular for producing cotton in the state. The cotton produced here, particularly in Gattu Mandal is classified as a high-quality cotton seed, owing to the soil condition, water and rainfall.

The cotton production has been so good that in the last five years, the district has seen a spurt of cotton mills, resulting in almost every farmer producing cotton avoiding other cash crops. In the district, there are roughly around 25 cotton mills. The farmers in this mandal are regarded as wealthy farmers by the peasants from the neighbouring mandal and districts.

However, this thriving cotton production which has benefitted the farmers as they get cash beforehand from the seed companies, has also shown its adverse impact in immensely affecting the literacy rate in the state. According to the 2011 census, the literacy rate in Gadwal is 60.23%.

Gattu Mandal in particular, has the lowest literacy rate in the state, and a major reason for this is believed to be the cotton production in the state. Farmers force their children to drop out of school for at least two months a year, as most of them cannot hire labour. Cotton production requires huge labour during pollination, which happens for 60 days.

Penchikalapadu, a small village with a population of 2,362 (according to 2011 census), has been facing the wrath of this cotton boom, which deprives their children of education and results in child labour.

To give an example of how the mandal is plagued with the problem of illiteracy: The upper primary school in the Penchikalapadu has a strength of 248 students. Of these 248 students, only 80-90 students turned up at school during the months of August and September, while the rest dropped out of school for two months to help their parents in seed cotton pollination.

G Muralidhar, who has been the headmaster of the school for eight years says, “School children dropping out of school for two months is quite common. We can’t go hard on their parents. They say that they are debt ridden and ask if we will help in repaying their loans. We really don’t have a proper solution other than counselling the parents. They, too, say that they want to send their children to school but are forced to make them work.”

“Parents say that it is only for two months that the children drop out of school – but they don’t realise that it’s not as simple as that. These students miss classes and we don’t take any special classes to cover the portion which they missed. Hence, most of these students are ill qualified for their class standards,” the headmaster laments.

The children who drop out of school to help their parents, work from 6am to 5pm every day. Padma, a farmer says, “For three months, the only time we go home is to sleep, and then early morning, after cooking, we rush to the fields. Cotton production is a herculean task. Even if we don’t work for a day, our crops will fail.”

Acknowledging the critical issue of child labour and education, MV Foundation (MVF) – an NGO working for child education – designed a programme in the district by deputing volunteers, who work as motivators, and help in stopping child labour and counsel the parents to send their kids to school regularly. Their primary job is to stop the children from dropping out from school especially during the cotton harvest.

Child Marriage

Apart from the problem of child labour and school dropouts, another major crisis in the district is the child marriages.

Cotton production requires manpower, and farmers who are wealthy enough employ labour by providing them a daily wage of Rs 300-350, and three meals a day. Poorer farmers who can’t afford labour though turn to family – and when there aren’t enough family members to help, they resort to child marriage.

Parents look for a bride for their sons, and once the children are married, the bride works on the farm, says Pasha, one of the MVF volunteers, working in Penchikalapadu.

“We have been trying to stop these child marriages. But these parents are clever. They don’t inform anyone – not even their relatives – and go to some temple in a neighbouring village and get the wedding done,” Pasha says. The girls, he says, are usually 14-15 years of age.

Chakali Srinivas, an education activist, working with MVF says that child marriage is the latest crisis which has emerged out of the cotton production in the mandal.

“During Karthika maasam (November-December), the marriage season, we have to maintain a vigil,” he says.

Recalling their efforts last year to stop child marriages, he says, “Last year, 192 child marriages happened. Out of them, we could stop only 48 weddings with the help of local public representatives and Childline.”

Varsha, a child activist, who is working in the area, says, “This cotton production results in early school drop outs. If the girl drops out of school, their parents borrow money and marry them off.”

Vicious cycle of cotton debt

Cotton production is an unending cycle where even if the farmer wishes to opt out, s/he cannot. The bleak agricultural conditions prevailing across Jogulamba Gadwal, and in fact the country, means that most farmers are debt ridden. This has been well documented by journalists such as P Sainath.

In such a condition, the farmers of the district are desperate for loans or advances. The cotton seed companies, through agents known as 'organisers' are willing to lend advances only to the farmers who will cultivate cotton. Money is lent not just for the cost of cultivating the cotton, but also for other “unavoidable expenditures” such as weddings and other ceremonies. The farmers do not have access to other avenues. This advance payment, at an interest of 2 or 3%, is a lifeline for them.

A farmer who cultivates half an acre of cotton typically borrows about Rs 10,000. The yield brings home about Rs 40,000. Once the advance money with the interest is paid back, the farmer takes home between Rs 25,000 and Rs 30,000. But the farmer receives this money only seven months after he has handed over the crop to the organiser. In this time, it is inevitable that debts are accrued again. Once again, the farmer heads back to the organiser for an advance payment. In this fashion, the seed companies, the cotton mills and the organisers facilitate an unending cycle of cotton production.

In Jogulamba Gadwal there are around 300 organisers, who are also farmers, who then employ sub-organisers, who are also farmers. These sub-organisers work as mediators between the organiser and the farmer.

Another problem for the farmer is to identify a reliable organiser. In cotton production, the farmer has to rely on the organiser, if the organiser says that the cotton has failed the quality test, the farmer has to again cultivate cotton to clear the previous debt. In this process the farmer gets entangled in a web of debt.

According to Ramu, a farmer, 20% of the cotton crop in his village fails the quality test.

He says, “The organiser and farmer relationship works on credibility. If we fall into the hands of a wrong person, we are doomed.”

“If two cotton tests fail, the farmer has to gulp down pesticide,” Ramu says.

“What can they (farmers) do? Their land would be grabbed as per agreement if they don’t repay the loans. So they kill themselves,” Ramu explains.

The village Sarpanch’s son, BN Sridarshan Reddy, who has been involved in the programme to stop the menace, says that the agriculture officers should organise workshops and explain to the villagers that they can make profits in other crop cultivation too.

“The cucumber crop is growing well in this region. While you make money of Rs 70,000 only after seven months in cotton production, you can earn Rs 45,000 within two months in cucumber cultivation,” he observes.

Measures taken by the government

Recently, the government has issued a directive to file cases against people who employ children in fields (including their parents) after learning the gravity of the issue. The District Collector and Superintendent of Police have instructed police constables to make rounds of villages to stop the menace. However, the ground reality remains the same.

Pasha says, “These measures are ineffective. The farmer says that they also want to educate their children, it is their helplessness which forces them to stop them from going to school. The only way one has to deal with them is, by going easy on them.”

“If these cases are filed, every farmer in the district would be booked,” he says.

He points out that only through counselling the dropping out of school children can be reduced.

While the ground reality of school children still being employed during cotton pollination remains the same, District Agriculture officer, Govindu Naik says that there has been a gradual decrease of school dropouts in the last three years.

He says that there has been a reduce in seed cotton production as most of them are opting for commercial cotton production – in seed cotton production, the pollination has to be done manually and they fetch more money, whereas in commercial cotton production there is no need for pollination.

“Out of the approximate 3.5 lakh hectares of agricultural land, in 2014, 45,000 hectares of land were used for seed cotton production. The year later it came down to 35,000 and this year it came down to 25,000,” Naik says.


With inputs from Amrit BLS


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