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Dark underbelly of cottonseed production in India

India has the distinction of having the largest area under cotton cultivation in the world and has been a pioneer in developing hybrid cotton seeds for commercial use. The Indian cotton seed industry is also marked by a high proportion of child labour among its workforce.The genetically modified BT cotton crop, which is claimed to have brought prosperity to Indian farmers, has left those children illegally employed in the cotton seed production fields much worse off. These children toil in extremely hazardous conditions, often complaining of breathing problems, skin irritation, loss of appetite and excruciating pain in the joints.

 

Monsanto is known to have grossed around Indian Rupees 340 crore (approximately US$7.5 million) from licensing its proprietary Bollgard (BG) gene traits to BT cotton hybrid seed firms in India in the fiscal year 2009-2010.Cotton seeds produced from Monsanto’s patented seeds account for 90 per cent market share of around 27-27.5 million packets of BT cotton seeds sold in India, with the rest accounted for by other domestic firms from other patented technologies.3

A recent study conducted by the Prayas Centre for Labour Research and Action (PCLRA)during the last cotton seed harvesting season, October to December 2010, claims that 52 per cent of the labourers employed on Monsanto’s own farms in the tribal belts of Southern Rajasthan and Northern Gujarat are children of the age group 6 to 18. The report claims that recently Monsanto has been trying to increase area under its direct production and has given over 1,300 plots of land to the tribals (local adivasi groups) in nearly 200 villages of Sabarkantha district and points out that, because of this move, the children concerned no longer need to migrate to distant areas but can now work in cotton seed farms locally.

The report states that although children were enrolled in local schools, they were found working on farms during school hours. The report is available on the PCLRA web site and includes photographs of children in school uniform working in the cotton seed production fields.

The research also claims to throw light on the modus operandi of Monsanto’s Human Rights Cell (HRC) through discussions with one of their researchers who allegedly states that, as a practice, the HRC does not report all child labour cases to the office as it “de-motivates” the team. The researcher goes on to claim that the team informs plot owners about upcoming vigilance visits well in advance so that children are removed from the fields ahead of such visits. According to the report’s conclusions, Monsanto has failed to keep the 2006 pledge made with other key stakeholders, local government agencies, theInternational Labour Organization (ILO) and other seed producers in launching the Child Care Programme (CCP) campaign, as well as its own human rights policy to tackle child labour at its cotton seed production sites.

The report’s conclusions also point to violations of relevant legislation, such as the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act 1986, the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act 2000 and the Bonded Labour (Abolition) System Act 1976. Since the children are coerced to work at the cost of their education, the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act has also been violated. Global March Against Child Labour is concerned about the growing incidence of child labour on cotton seed production farms and calls upon Monsanto, other major cottonseed producers and the Indian government to ensure that such violations of child rights end immediately and do not recur.

 

Expressing dissatisfaction over the conduct of Monsanto, Global March Chairperson Mr Kailash Satyarthi said: “Multinational companies like Monsanto need to keep in mind that Indian civil society is much stronger, more vigilant and active than ever before and will no longer tolerate the abuse of children’s rights, particularly their right to education and a normal, safe childhood. The work of Global March and its members around the issue of corporate social responsibility aims at ensuring that big business no longer profits from violations of children’s and workers’ rights at any stage of the supply chain. Supply chains must be clearly mapped and opened to the scrutiny of state inspection systems to ensure that children are in school and not the workplace and that adult workers benefit from decent conditions, including a living wage to ensure that they do not have to send their children to work to support family income. In the wake of the report by the Prayas Centre for Labour Research and Action, we urge Monsanto to pay heed to these findings and address these violations immediately.”