Reena Suresh Korde, 14, of Longaon village, some 110 km away from Aurangabad, Maharashtra, lost her father in a tragic accident some eight months back. In between attending classes, the gutsy girl has been a strong support to her mother, who has now taken charge of their vast cotton fields.
Business must go on as usual and the hired labour files to tend to the day’s work. Reena monitors their activities and provides them with full-length shirts and masks before they commence to spray the cotton saplings with chemical pesticides.
“I have advised our workers about the importance of wearing protective gear before they start spraying as these simple measures will go a long way in safeguarding their health,” states the Class IX student.
The results of these protective measures, she notes, have been most satisfying. “Our labourers would often complain of itchy and burning sensation while spraying and of skin infections. Such complaints grew less after my mother purchased hand gloves and goggles for them.”
Similarly, her friend Shruti Appasaheb Borde, 13, and in Class VIII, recollects how her parents would come back from a hard day’s work in the fields with swollen faces and boils and other abrasions on their bodies. “I learnt later that this was because they came in direct contact with pesticides during spraying. Though the doctor would prescribe medicines these only gave temporary relief and the symptoms would recur again and again.”
At a special training programme held at Mahatma Phule Madhyamik Vidhyala, the local school that both girls attend, students were given an insight on healthy practices in cotton cultivation, which could go a long way in preserving the health of cotton farmers, who dabble with chemical pesticides and fertilizers on a daily basis.
The students learnt the importance of donning protective gear such as hankies, masks, goggles or even helmets before pesticide application in the fields. “When I informed my parents about these protective measures, they took my advice and now cover their faces and bodies with handkerchiefs and full-length clothing while undertaking spraying tasks on the farm,” said Shruti.
This unique training programme for students, most of whom hail from cotton growing families, was recently launched in the district by Krishi Vigyan Kendra (KVK), an autonomous body under the Indian Council for Agricultural Research (ICAR), with support from Worldwide Fund for Nature India (WWF-India). Initially, seven schools were covered under the training programme which is a part of the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) project aimed at sustainable cotton production.
According to Pandurang Jarhad, 33, a producer unit Manager in the BCI project, the training programme, held twice a week, has now been extended to 12 schools in 11 villages. “We have been working in these villages for the past seven years and noticed that farmers were either not aware of or indifferent to basic safety measures while cultivating cotton. So, we thought that reaching out to the children was the most effective way to get the parents’ attention,” he disclosed.
The lectures focused on decent work standards, integrated pest management (IPM) practices to counter incidences of pest infestation in the cotton crops and the ills of child labour. “The students were very responsive, to the extent that they started telling their parents to buy protective gear for themselves rather than food items for the children,” he added.
The topics provided at the lectures have given much food for thought to the youngsters, many of whom have spoken out passionately against child labour. “I did not realise the hazards of child labour before,” said an aghast Reena. “No child under 14 years of age should be permitted to work in the fields. And even if children accompany their parents to the fields, they should not be involved in hazardous work. And they should definitely stay away from the area when spraying of pesticides is done.”
Prakash Raju Zine, 15, the son of a landless labourer, has taken the lessons to heart. He spends his free time scouring different cotton fields and reaching out to the workers personally to alert them of the hazards of spraying chemicals without protective face and body gear. “We don’t own our own land, but my father works for other farmers. I have seen him applying pesticides several times with his bare hands and noticed that his eyes would water. He also developed boils on his skin. After I convinced him to wear a mask and long shirts while applying sprays, his health has improved greatly.”
The response from the youth has been immediate and unanimous. An enthusiastic Vaibhav Suryakant Khandebharad, 15, goes out of his way to bring the workers around to his way of thinking. The son of a doctor, who is also a cotton farmer, this young lad also zones in on different fields to spread the message of healthy cotton practices.
“If I happen to sight labourers working on cotton fields, I immediately go across to ensure that they are following basic safety measures. I even scolded my own uncles when I found them carelessly going about their work. Now they have started wearing masks and long clothing.”
As the eldest of four children, !4-year-old Sonu Gajanan’s words had instant impact on his parents who immediately starting donning protective gear while working in their six-acre farm. “Over a short period of time, my parents were rid of their usual ailments such as headaches, fever and stomach aches,” Sonu reveals.
The lessons are not restricted to safe cotton cultivation practices but also provide a comprehensive picture on the importance of hygiene and sanitation of cotton growers and their families. “We have been taught the importance of covered potable drinking water, both at home and while working in the fields,” added Vaibhav.