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The Hand(maid)s of Cottonseed: A Case Study of Cottonseed Girls in Telangana

Zenia Taluja & Nanda Kishore Kannuri

“Do you smell the pesticides?” our translator asked, as our bus bumped its way through the green landscape of Gadwal district of Telangana. From the window of the bus, the cotton fields seemed busy with bent bodies moving across acres of land, mostly female bodies clad in  saree or suit coupled with loose men’s shirt, and a colorful scarf covering their head. Some of them were shorter and remained partially hidden between the towering plants.

A cottonseed field in Gadwal

The Cottonseed Landscape

India is the second largest producer of cottonseed in the world after China, accounting for nearly 18% of the world’s cotton. With around 12 million hectares under cotton cultivation, India’s share accounts for 25% of the world area, with almost 95% of the country’s cottonseed production spread across Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka in South India, and Gujarat and Maharashtra in Central India (CCI, 2013). From being the third largest importer in the cotton trade, India stands to be the second largest exporter after China. This significant increase in cotton area and production in India is attributed to the introduction and rapid spread of Bt cotton technology since 2002.

India was amongst the first countries to commercialize cotton hybrids and today grows more Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) cotton than any other country in the world (Singh, 2013). While all other Bt cotton-growing countries have taken to growing open-pollinated varieties, India has restricted itself to cultivating long duration hybrids, which are ‘crosses between two crops that often see a 10-20% higher yield than their parents’. With the increase in the area under cotton hybrids from 2% in North India and 40% elsewhere to 96% across the country (2002-2011) (Pulla, 2018), there has been an increase in demand for manual labor, especially for the process of hybridization.

Manual hybridization is an extremely laborious and delicate procedure where the buds of the female plant, which are ripe for bloom, are emasculated delicately with the thumbnail in order to not damage the ‘ovaries of the flower’. The emasculated pistil is tagged with a bright colored plastic square that can be seen from a distance in the green landscape. The pollen from the male parent flower is rubbed against the tagged pistil of the female plant the next morning, failure of which leads to the plant being rendered ‘barren’ (Ramamurthy, 2010: 404-405). This laborious process and the extent of human touch and care in the production of cottonseed is highlighted in Preeti Ramamurthy’s explanation of the process of hybridization:

“Every single seed in the 15 million packets of seed sold each year in India has been touched by human hands at least five times: during emasculation, tagging, pollinating, untagging, and picking.” (Ramamurthy, 2010: 404)

What was earlier a natural process of self-pollination is now carried out by human hands. Randy Deaton, Monsanto’s global business lead for cotton, estimates that honeybee pollination yields 90 percent less than hand labor. Besides, “there is lots of available labor there and the cost of labor is very low” (Robinson, 2002 in Ramamurthy, 2010: 408), thus, highlighting the availability of cheap labour to be an integral force in the uninterrupted success of cottonseed industry. The demand for increased and cheap labour is met by the most vulnerable and easily coerced group located within a patriarchal society: children, especially girls.

One of the most labour intensive parts of the production process is the process of cross-pollination. Because of the increase in labour demand, children are employed on a long-term contract through advances and loans extended to their parents by local seed producers, who in turn have contracts with the seed companies. During the crossing season, children work 8 to 12 hours but are paid lesser than the official minimum wages and the wages paid to adults (Venkateswarlu, 2015). In order to maximize the output and minimize the cost, farmers mostly employ girls in cottonseed fields (Venkateswarlu & Da Corta, 2005).

The Cottonseed Girls

The cottonseed fields in Gadwal are amongst the few spaces visible to the public eye, where women and girls appear in majority numbers. Their requirement in handling cottonseed work is justified using cultural narratives. Parents, medical workers, and other functionaries, as well as the girls themselves, state that female workers are more efficient in the cottonseed fields as compared to males. This is justified by the narrative that girls have nimble fingers, which are suitable for the delicate work of emasculation as well as weeding. Not only this, their short heights are believed to allow them to work for longer durations without back pain. Girls are also said to be ‘less rebellious’, ‘more caring’, and sensitive to the needs of the family members, because of which they are more dedicated to the work being assigned. The delicate tasks are regarded as children’s responsibilities (ILO, 2016: 17; ILO, 2006) and “girls, as portrayed by adults, thus embody disciplined laboring subjects through their extraordinary suitability for hybrid cottonseed work.” (Ramamurthy, 2010: 411).

The employment of children as mazdoors, majority of whom are girls, has a detrimental impact on their literacy levels, health status, as well as their future hopes and aspirations. In order to cater to the long hours of work in cotton fields, children often drop out of school. Those who are not drop-outs, do not attend school during the crossing season which lasts around 2-3 months. The majority of absentees and/or drop-outs are girl children whose education is not considered of much significance as they are expected to help their families until they get married.

“This idea (that girls are good at cottonseed work) however is related to the fact that a girl has to get married so she should be used in the field till the time she goes to her house.” - RMP, Gadwal.

The belief in the necessity of a girl to get married is one that is realized at a very early age by the cottonseed girls, in a region which has been infamous for cases of child marriage. Amongst the reasons stated by many for working in the field, cottonseed work is viewed as a way to earn their own dowry in order to get married on time and reduce the pressure on their natal family. Thus, for the girls in Gadwal, the compulsion and obligation to work on the cotton fields is not solely related to the poor economic status of the families but also to the (re)constructed idea that their labour as females is indispensable for the good care and growth of both the cotton as well as their families. They are majboor not only as members of a poor family but also as females belonging to a poor family. The awareness of gender inequality, as well as the socially constructed need of finding a suitable match at the earliest, was communicated by an adolescent girl who stated:

“Ladkiya toh dusre ghar mein jaegi, dowry deni hai toh dowry kahan se ayega agar kamenge nahi...ladkiya apne khett aur dusro ke khett mein, dono mein kaam karti hai...par ladke mazoodri itna nahi karte...woh apne khett mein kaam karte hai.”

“Girls should go to another family. Supposed we have to give dowry; from where will we get it, unless we work? Girls don’t hesitate to work in others’ as well as their own fields. Boys are not that hardworking...they only work for themselves.”

Pesticides and Health Hazards

Working on cottonseed fields also exposes the girls to the harmful effects of pesticides. Cotton cultivators use some of the most highly toxic pesticides, including significant levels of organophosphates, organochlorine, carbamate, and synthetic pyrethroids, in addition to “new generation” pesticides like spinosad and nicotinoid pesticides, which affect the nervous system (Kuruganti, 2003). The quantities of chemicals applied are massive; while cotton occupies less than 5% of cultivated land in India, it uses more than 50% of all agricultural pesticides. Women and children take part in agricultural activities like mixing the pesticides, disposal, washing the containers, weeding, and harvesting, which increases their contact with pesticides. Commonly used pesticides are known to have potential health consequences such as disruption of hormonal function, effect on fertility, spontaneous abortions, stillbirths, premature births, low birth weight and developmental defects among the children (Bretveld, Thomas, Scheepers, Zielhuis, & Roeleveld, 2006). In utero exposure and early exposure to pesticides amongst the children increase their susceptibility to lymphoma, mutagenesis, birth defects like cleft lip, limb reduction and neural tube reduction (Mathur, Agarwal, Johnson, & Saikia, 2005). A similar study conducted in the mid-2000s in India, with children from cotton-growing areas with heavy pesticide use and children from areas where pesticide use was much lower, also showed that the pesticide-exposed children had lower abilities in stamina, cognition, memory, motor skills, and concentration. A few child deaths due to pesticide exposure were also reported in some states (Kuruganti, 2003). Apart from the acute effects of the pesticides on human health, repeated occupational exposure to low concentrations of pesticides over a long time cause delayed and chronic effects. Some of the major health impacts from chronic exposure are cancers, reproductive and endocrine disruption, neurological damage, immune system damages, etc. Both acute and chronic effects of pesticide exposure contribute to the erosion of wellbeing among the children working in the cotton fields and deprive them of the larger social and developmental milestones. However, since the harmful effects of pesticides on the human body are mostly not immediate, the children as well as the adults remain oblivious to the harmful consequences of the exposure to the same.

 

 

The health problems reported by children working in cottonseed fields include frequent episodes of fever, severe headaches, nausea, weakness, convulsion and respiratory depression (see also Venkateswarlu, 2015). These problems are seen as the result of the strong sun, smell of pesticides and the hard labour performed on cottonseed fields. The children also complain of blackening of the thumb and the pain caused during the emasculation process when petals and pollen-laden anthers are removed using a thumbnail. Some, as reported, also end up damaging the thumbnail to the extent that they have to use the caps of soda bottles over their thumb to carry the work. Despite causing ill-health, tending to cotton fields is considered to be the top priority for every family engaged in cottonseed work. One of the medical workers described the importance of the same by stating how “people here treat cotton as a newborn child which has to be paid all the attention to, especially in the 2-3 months of crossing … if it is not taken care of in the manner needed, it will die… especially during that period, we don’t find women at home (because they are in the field) for regular check-ups … some women work in the fields till the last month of pregnancy … they are not bothered about their health when it comes to cotton.”

The social reality of the cottonseed girls is one which endows them with the disposition that their bodies are meant for household chores and field labour. With limited access to education, and the socio-economic conditions of the family and the community which pushes them into cottonseed work, the girls build their hopes and aspirations conforming to the norms of the community. Most adolescent cottonseed girls, when asked where they see themselves in a few years, expressed their hope to be married and to have children. A medical worker, while talking about the young girls and women of the cottonseed community, expressed how limited their aims are because of their poor economic backgrounds; “They cannot think much…(they feel) meri zindegi bass yehi hai (that this is their life)...woh dusri duniya ke baare mein soch hi nahi pate (they can’t even think of another life)… unki soch bahut seemat hai (their thoughts are very much limited), which is just as far as their village geography goes”.

 

Girls working on a cotton field wearing their school uniform, Gadwal

Situated within a culture of poverty, illiteracy, early marriage, family debts, the worry of the present and uncertainty of the future, the cottonseed girls accept the labour demanded of them as an inevitable reality. This is further strengthened by the cultural narratives of the indispensability of their work on cotton fields. They become accustomed to the pain and discomfort experienced during field work which, as described by them, turns into an ordinary part and an aadat (habit), in their everyday life.

(Zenia Taluja is a researcher at Public Health Foundation of India and Dr. Nanda Kishore Kannuri teaches at Indian Institute of Public Health, Hyderabad.)

References:

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