Seed companies in the Indian cotton sector have been told they should refuse to deal with farmers unless they sign an agreement not to use child labour.
The National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR), an Indian governmental commission, says seed companies could help to improve the situation in the country by incorporating an anti child labour clause into agreements between themselves and farmers who grow seeds for them.
The NCPCR says the problem of child labour is especially marked in fields of genetically-modified ‘Bt cotton’ in Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Maharashtra and Rajasthan, because plants producing Bt cotton seeds require children of low height to artificially cross pollinate them.
It recently met representatives of 12 Bt cotton seed manufacturing companies in Andhra Pradesh, and reported that the firms had agreed to require farmers to sign agreements on child labour.
Yogesh Dube, a member of the NCPCR who was behind the idea, said child labour in Bt cotton fields is being carried out on a large scale, with children being forced to work for 14 hours and exposed to pesticides.
The NCPCR has also urged local authorities to set up registers of Bt cotton seed companies and their contractors, and to track whether they have signed anti child labour agreements.
India is thought to be the country with the largest area of genetically modified cotton under cultivation in the world, more even than China.
GM technology arrived in India in 1995, when biotech company Monsanto teamed up with India’s Mahyco to import Bt cotton seeds. In 2002,India allowed farmers to cultivate Bt cotton under strict controls, but a weak regulatory system has allowed many of those controls to be ignored.
A thriving illegal market in Bt cotton seeds exists in India, which means a sizeable proportion of all India’s GM cotton – perhaps more than half – is from unapproved varieties.
The NCPCR was set up in 2007 to ways of enshrining the rights of children in laws and programmes in India.