More than four lakh children, mostly girls and under 18 years of age, are involved as child labour in cottonseed fields in India, a human rights report has said.
Nearly 4,16,000 children below 18 years, almost half of which are even younger than 14 years of age are working in the states of Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, the report said, adding that compared to the 2003-2004 harvest season, the total number of such children has risen.
The figures only decreased in Andhra Pradesh because of local and international pressure, it said.
The study titled "Child bondage continues in Indian cotton supply chain", was jointly released by the India Committee of the Netherlands, the International Labour Rights Forum, OECD Watch, German Agro-Action and OneWorld Net NRW of Germany.
The statistics, the report said, are based on field research and it has been authored by Dr. Davuluri Venkateswarlu, director of Glocal Research.
ICN's director Gerard Oonk said: "The report makes it chillingly clear that our cotton products are tainted with massive bonded child labour."
"The companies involved, both Indian and multinational, concerned governments and international organisations, should make every effort to get the children out of this pernicious work force and are admitted into school," Oonk said.
Children, the report said, are made to work 8 to 12 hours a day and usually earn between Rs 20-30 daily. They are routinely exposed to poisonous pesticides in the fields and often trafficked as migrants from other districts and even states, it added.
In Tamil Nadu and Gujarat, the report found that more than 80 per cent of the children are trafficked. For instance, North Gujarat "receives" tens of thousands of children from the neighbouring state of Rajasthan every year, it stated.
These children often live in make-shift shelters and are very vulnerable to mental, physical and sexual abuse, the study said.
The report contains a number of cases on the plight of children working in the cotton fields. These include horrifying details of two girls being raped, three children being killed due to pesticide exposure, children forced to leave school because of a drinking father and a loan to repay, and the dawn to dusk work schedule of a migrant child.
The overwhelming majority of the children working in the cotton fields are either Dalits or tribals, it said.
Around 13 big Indian companies and two multinational groups are involved in this "modern form of child slavery", the report revealed.